A greener Ramadan: UAE experts urge Muslims to adopt sustainable, healthier diets

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The holy month of Ramadan is a “golden opportunity” to make a shift toward a greener, sustainable, healthier and non-wasteful lifestyle, dieticians and experts in the United Arab Emirates have said.

The holiest month on the calendar in Islam, Ramadan is observed by about 1.9 billion Muslims around the world who fast from dawn to sunset as an act of devotion and spirituality.

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Muslim labourers and workers prepare to break their fast, during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, in a charity tent set up to offer free iftar meals to poor working labourers in one of the residential areas in Dubai, UAE. (File photo: Reuters)
Muslim labourers and workers prepare to break their fast, during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, in a charity tent set up to offer free iftar meals to poor working labourers in one of the residential areas in Dubai, UAE. (File photo: Reuters)

Elissa AbiNakhoul, clinical dietician said that Ramadan – a time for reflection – can offer Muslims a chance this year to think more about how what ends on the plate can affect the environment across the globe.

Avoid waste

“The month of Ramadan is a golden opportunity to consider making a shift towards a ‘green lifestyle’ that is environmental-friendly, non-polluting, non-wasteful and aims toward saving of natural resources,” she told Al Arabiya English. “The green lifestyle means improving the quality of life and achieving sustainable development.”

She suggested Muslims should cut down and eliminate their intake of fast food, avoid overdoing food quantities to decrease food waste after iftar and decrease the usage of plastic bottles and cutlery.

The dietician said Muslims who want to follow a greener lifestyle can increase vegetable and fruit intake – especially the seasonal and locally available ones – add more beans and lentil soup at iftar instead of chicken and meat high in saturated fat and always breaking the fast with soup and salad.

She recommends Muslims use vegetable-based oil for cooking instead of ghee, butter, and cheese, replace high-calorie sweets with dry fruits, dates and fresh fruits and replace white sugar with honey, maple syrup, date syrup and molasses.

Rejuvenate mind and body

Juliot Vinolia Rajarathinam, a clinical dietitian and consultant nutritionist at Dubai’s Medeor Hospital, said Ramadan is a time for Muslims to reflect on their thoughts and actions to rejuvenate the mind and body.

“As we are evolving into people focusing on sustainable living, it is time we take responsibility for eating wisely,” she said. “Some unique tissue-healing and disease-preventing hormones and enzymes are produced only during fasting.”

These health benefits are missed when people overindulge in processed foods, refined sugars, and trans fats.
“Sustainable eating is choosing foods that are healthy and less processed with lower environmental impact, improving food security for all,” she said.

Climate-friendly meals

Rajarathinam recommends cooking “big meals” – or cooking in batches – during Ramadan, as a little pre-planning on portions can greatly reduce food wastage, food costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, buying food like rice, wheat, lentils, beans, onion, garlic and spices in bulk during Ramadan sales can greatly save money and also reduce plastic waste.

“Bulk buying greatly reduces the amount of packaging material compared to buying the same product in smaller packages more frequently,” she said.

Plant-based diets reduce inflammation

She added that plant-based diets are proven to reduce inflammation and the risk of chronic diseases. They double the disease-preventing health benefits of fasting making it an “eco-friendly Ramadan,” she said.

Muslims should also reduce red meat intake and processed animal products. This can not only reduce the risk of cancer, stroke and heart disease but – according to wide-ranging studies, the red meat industry contributes to a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Seasonal fruits and vegetables are fresh and cost-effective,” she added. “Fresh produce has more antioxidants available than preserved long-life foods. Some of the most sustainable fruits and vegetables to have while fasting are pumpkin, broccoli, tomato, carrots, sweet potato, beetroot, peas, beans, mushrooms, spinach, cabbage, apples, citrus fruits, melons, papayas, and bananas. These also do not require plastic packaging.”

Rajarathinam said eco-friendly whole grains, wild rice, oatmeal, and millets, have a good shelf life and are packed with vital nutrients that help in sustaining energy during fasting hours, are high in fiber to prevent constipation and are also budget friendly.

“Buying wisely, storing efficiently, and using healthy cooking methods incorporating traditional recipes save and revive the culture and help maintain good health,” she said. “Let’s make this Ramadan sustainable by choosing a nutritionally adequate diet, especially more plant-based, home-cooked fresh meals which are not only healthy and cost-effective but are also climate-friendly and easily decompose and nurture the soil all in line with our COP28 goals.”

Reevaluate eating habits

Ramadan provides the perfect opportunity for Muslims to re-evaluate their relationship with food, according to Pranita Anand Gavankar, a clinical dietician at Dubai’s Saudi German Hospital.

“Try to incorporate more plant-based foods rather than meats,” she said. “The meat industry demands a lot from natural resources.”

One can make a difference “by saving a few pounds of harmful carbon emissions by simply going on a plant-based diet a few days a week, helping save the planet,” the dietician said.

She suggested going for plant-based milk options such as soya milk, rice milk, and oats milk.

“Try to go for at least two to three days ‘meatless Iftars’ in a week. Furthermore, choose local produce. Local produce is not only a good source of antioxidants and beneficial nutrients but a more sustainable option,” Gavankar added.

“Finally, be careful of food packaging,” she said, urging UAE residents to shun single-use products such as plastic bottles, plastic cutleries, cling films, and aluminum foil.

“Start using reusable utensils, bottles and packaging options. It is a simple way to start,” she said. “Every individual can contribute and make a difference to the planet by adopting a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle.”

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