Sehri, also called Suhur, Suhoor, Sahari and Sahur in other languages, is an Islamic term referring to the meal consumed early in the morning by Muslims before fasting, during the Islamic month of Ramadan. The meal is eaten before fajr, or dawn.
Benefits of Sehri or Suhoor
Our Holy Prophet (saw) said: “Eat Sehri as there are blessings in Sehri” (Bukhari and Muslim).
Ibn Umar (Radhi Allaho anho) relates: Rasulullah (Sallallaho alaihe wasallam) said: ‘Verily Allah and His Malaa’ikah send Mercy upon those who eat ‘Sehri’ ”
Rasulullah (Sallallahu alaihe wasallam) said: ‘The difference between our fasting and that of the Ahlul-Kitaab (Jews and Christians) lies in our partaking of food at “Sehri” which they do not.” The Prophet has said, “Eat Sehri, because in it lie great blessings”
In his commentary on “Sahih Bukhari”, Ibne Hajar has mentioned various reasons for the blessedness of “Sehri”:
- Because in it, the ‘Sunnah’ is followed.
- Through “Sehri”, we differentiate ourselves from the ways of Ahlul-Kitaab, which we are at all times called upon to do.
- It provides strength for “Ibaadah”
- It promotes greater sincerity in “Ibaadah”
- It aids in elimination of bad temper, which normally comes about as result of hunger.
- ‘Sehri’ is the time when prayers are accepted.
- At the time of ‘Sehri’, one gets the opportunity to remember Allah, makes Dhikr and lifts up the hand to Him in prayer.
There are many other ahaadeeth that extol the virtues of Sehri, suffice to say that one should not leave it out.
Fasting has been ordained for us in order to develop Taqwa, while (medically speaking) it does have a detoxification/purification effect on the body it is not meant to weaken the body and induce the process of protein breakdown that occurs with long periods of starvation, this is prevented by having suhoor or sehri as it moderates the time that the body is without food.
While most healthy individuals can manage to do a Ramadan fast without sehri, (and it is still compulsory to do so and duly rewarded if sehri is missed), the physical effects of the fast are different without sehri and it is indeed devoid of the “barakah” of sehri that our Beloved Holy Prophet (SAW) mentioned for having the suhoor meal.
In medical terms there are 2 distinct processes that can occur when a person goes without food and this depends on how long and how often they do so.
- In intermittent fasting for shorter periods as with fasting in Ramadhaan between sehri and iftaar, there are many beneficial effects on the body, including autophagy (clean up of cellular waste products), increased brain function, reduction of insulin, lipolysis (burning of fat stores for energy) etc. (for more detailed information on these benefits of intermittent fasting, see my article on intermittent fasting here: medical benefits of intermittent fasting)
- With longer periods of fasting including hunger strikes, but also by continuously not having sehri, the body goes into starvation mode, formally called the famine response, this is a detrimental process that slows down the body’s metabolism to try and save as much energy as it can, proteins (especially from muscle tissue) are broken down for energy in this state and a person will actually gain weight quicker once they do eat again, since their metabolism has slowed down.
When to have sehri
Our Holy Prophet (saw) has said that the sehri should be delayed as much as possible whilst the Iftaar should be opened immediately once the time sets in. Therefore to eat sehri at the latest time is better and greater in reward than eating earlier provided that you are sure of not eating once the fajr time has set in.
What to eat for sehri
What you eat for Sehri will depend a lot on where you live in the world and what is available, what your cultural background and preferences are etc, but there are some general principles for the sehri meal that can be followed by all Muslims in this month. Assuming that after the intention of following the Sunnah, most of us also eat Sehri for the benefit of being able to manage the fast and “survive” until iftaar, and keeping in mind that we don’t want our bodies to go into starvation mode which denies us the physical benefits of the fast, then the best sehri would be one that gives us energy for the whole day and generally makes it easy to cope with our daily activities and ibaadaat until iftaar. For this it would be necessary to have a combination of carbohydrates, protein, fats and water for sehri.
Good carbs give you the necessary energy
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and easily used by the body for energy but can play havoc with blood sugar/glucose levels and cause cravings and hunger pangs if the wrong type of carbohydrates are consumed. There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex.
- Simple carbohydrates are refined sugars that have very little nutritional value to the body, and therefore, it’s advisable that their consumption be limited to small quantities. In comparison to complex carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates are digested by the body more quickly, because they have a very simple chemical structure. Foods that contain simple carbohydrates include table sugar, products with white flour, honey, milk, yoghurt, candy, chocolate, fruit, fruit juice, cake, jam, biscuits, molasses, golden syrup, soda, soft drinks and packaged sweet cereals. These foods give a quick spike to glucose levels in the blood and provide an immediately available burst of energy. This is normally not needed at the time of sehri unless you start your marathon training before fajr, which I doubt you do, so in response your body releases the hormone insulin. This hormone brings down glucose levels rapidly after the meal and leaves you with some serious hunger pangs and food cravings. People who eat a lot of simple carbohydrates for sehri are easily recognised by these words: “The fast got me today”.
- Complex carbohydrates consist of a chemical structure that is made up of three or more sugars, which are usually linked together to form a chain. These sugars are mostly rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Due to their complexity, they take a little longer to digest, and they don’t raise the sugar levels in the blood as quickly as simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates act as the body’s long term fuel, and can be compared to diesel vs petrol, in that it burns slower so provides energy for longer.
This brings us to the Glycemic Index, commonly referred to by the letters GI, (not pronounced ghee). The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly blood sugar levels rise after eating a particular type of food. The effects that different foods have on blood sugar levels vary considerably. The glycemic index estimates how much each gram of available carbohydrate (total carbohydrate minus fiber) in a food raises a person’s blood glucose level following consumption of the food, relative to consumption of pure glucose. Pure glucose has a glycemic index of 100. So in essence, the higher the GI rating of a food, the quicker blood glucose will be raised and the more hungry you will feel during the fast. That is why some people opt for Low GI bread for sehri and other low GI foods as they give a more stable constant release of energy throughout the fast and reduce the hunger pangs and cravings that can be experienced with high GI meals. For a good table that shows the GI of various foods see: Glycemic index tables
But GI is not the whole story, so lets get to protein and fats. Both proteins and fats have the ability to keep you full for longer and are essential in any healthy diet or meal, and therefore in sehri as well.
Proteins maintain body strength, prevent starvation mode and keeps you full
Protein consumption for Sehri is extremely important since it prevents excessive breakdown of muscle during the fast. Proteins are necessary in every stage of ones metabolism and without it, the metabolism slows down. This is normally experienced by most people as a slump in their energy levels especially between mid morning and the afternoon. If one is fasting without having sufficient protein for sehri then it will manifest in a greater feeling of weakness and lack of motivation to do anything which may or may not be accompanied by hunger pangs. This doesn’t bode well, as neither will you be able to do any physical work, but you may also experience laziness in other ibaadaat such as reading quraan, giving da’wah and performing salaat as well.
Fats allow your brain to function properly
Did you know that your brain is about 60 percent fat? The fats you eat strongly influence your level of brain function. Saturated fats, obtained either from animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, cream and fatty meats or found in some tropical plants and vegetable oils such as coconut, palm and palm kernel, are not as bad as you think, and in fact also play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin and hair, insulating body organs against shock, maintaining body temperature, and promoting healthy cell function.
When you eat saturated fats as part of your sehri meal, they slow down absorption so that you can go longer without feeling hungry. In addition, they act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Dietary fats are also needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption, and for a host of other biological processes. Not having enough fats for sehri or in your diet in general can manifest in the following:
- Mental fog
- Memory problems
- Poor sleep
- Lack of concentration
Sound familiar? If you’re experiencing brain fog or any other of the symptoms above during fasting, you may be lacking in good saturated fats. Note that I said good fats, i’m not talking about samoosas fried in vegetable oils here, or the hydrogenated vegetable oil found in crisps and other junk foods. These fatty acids can cause major clogging of your arteries, type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems.
Water keeps you hydrated
Nobody has to extol the benefits of water, we know that it is essential for survival and it should be consumed with the sehri meal in moderate quantity to prevent dehydration.
What are the best foods for sehri then?
Summarising the previous section I would say that a combination of
- low gi wholegrain breads (or brown rice), plus
- a low GI fruit (such as apples, strawberries, berries, banana etc),
- some protein in the form of eggs, meat, beans or cheese,
- fat from butter, nuts or meat
- with the addition of dates and
are amongst the best combination of foods one can have for sehri.
When one looks at the recommendations of the Holy Prophet (SAW) we see something amazing:
The Holy Prophet (SAW) has said. “In three things, are great blessings: in “Jama’ah”, in eating “Thareed” and in “Sehri”.
The Messenger (SAW) also said: “The best Suhoor for the believer is dates.” [Abu Dawood, Al-Baihaqee and Ibn Hibbaan]
Thareed is a soup mixture with meat and barley bread or a mixture of dates and barley bread, it is the perfect combination of low gi bread containing complex carbohydrates as well as high fibre content, and meat which is high in protein and fats and provides all the necessary components of a good sehri as mentioned in the previous section. Some people have haleem which is akin to thareed, but remember that the bread used in the time of the Holy Prophet (SAW) and referred to here is barley bread, not refined white flour bread which is actually a high GI food and neither healthy nor suitable and cannot be regarded as a component of the “thareed” that is referred to in the hadeeth. Instead one should source barley bread, or low gi wholewheat bread, this is closer to the actual thareed.
Dates although considered a high GI fruit are the exception to the rule of low GI since they are a unique fruit that no other fruit can come close to in terms of nutritional profile, they are regarded as the fruit highest in glucose, 75 to 87 percent of the date being glucose and fructose while it also contains proteins, fats and vitamins such as Vitamin A, B1 and B12 and minerals including calcium, phosphate, potassium, sulfur, sodium, magnesium, cobalt, zinc, flourine, copper, maganese and a good amount of cellulose fiber.
How much to eat for sehri
This again is a personal preference, Maulana Habib may suffice on a few dates whereas Maulana Sajjaad needs more to get through the day and this will depend on a persons individual metabolism and what type of work they do during the day. Naturally if one is a labourer, such as a mechanic or plumber, expending a lot of energy, then it would be wise to stock up for sehri so as to have energy for the rest of the day, but if one is spending ones time in i’tikaaf for example, the energy requirements will be less. Keep in mind also that people who use their mind a lot such as students will also expend a lot of energy since the brain consumes the most amount of energy of any organ, they should therefore have a good sehri and especially add a good serving of nuts such as almonds, brazil nuts or walnuts for improved brain function during the fast.
Here I want to mention that some people complain that if they eat a heavy meal for sehri they often get more hungry and find the fast more difficult. This is more often not due to the size of the meal but rather what is being eaten. If one eats typical white rice for example, which is normally very high on the glycemic index, it will result in quicker feelings of hunger and cravings. Whereas someone who is having a light sehri with either dates or low gi foods will find that they manage quite well during the fast. The opposite can also be true in that if the same person just has a chocolate which is high GI with no nutritional value they will probably find the fast difficult on that day with a lot of cravings and hunger pangs.
To tea or not to tea
Most people either drink tea or coffee, so what about having it for sehri? There are two takes on this, one is that they make you pass more urine taking with it valuable mineral salts that your body would need during the day so they should be avoided, and the other is that if you are accustomed to the caffeine you will end up having a headache without it.
While I agree that they are diuretics and cause some dehydration, I say it is better to fast without a headache then with one. Provided you are also having other food items and water it will not cause significant or noticeable dehydration or depletion of vitamins, so go ahead and have your tea/coffee (preferably without the sweet biscuits).
Notwithstanding the above, I have found that the easiest fast is attained when one remembers to ask Allah to make it easy for us. Without His divine help we do not have the ability to go without food and drink, it is neither our strength nor our food or planning that makes us endure the fast. It is only with the help of Allah after adopting the necessary means as outlined above. We should always request Allah especially at the time of starting the fast that He make it easy for us and accept it from us. Aameen. (Please remember me in your duaas as well)
PS: Both Maulana Habib Bobat and Maulana Sajjaad Timol are both right in how they have their sehri, may Allah reward them for a great and refreshing sehri program. For those who dont live near the radio station, the program can be heard via live audiostreaming on the radio islam website: www.radioislam.co.za
والله أعلمُ بالـصـواب
(And Allah knows best what is correct)