Heartburn and Food: Is Anything Safe?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Why is it that eating some of our favorite foods like chocolate, burritos, or anything fatty or fried practically guarantees a case of heartburn?

Acid reflux -- the main symptom of heartburn -- is the downside of chili peppers, citrus fruits, orange juice, coffee. These foods directly irritate the lining of the esophagus.

Chocolate, garlic, peppermint, and foods with high fat content actually lower the pressure in the sphincter, the valve in the esophagus, which makes it less effective and more likely that acid will back into the esophagus from the stomach.

But why might one of these foods bother you one time and not another? "It could be that if you combined some of these, you might have a worse problem," says Radhika Srinivasan, MD, a gastrointestinal specialist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Also, overeating any kind of food can give you heartburn -- "Thanksgiving Dinner Syndrome." "When our tummies are really full, that's when we're very likely to have heartburn," she says. "I recommend three-hour gaps between eating a heavy meal and sleeping." Also, exercising after a meal does help relieve heartburn, she says.

Severely overweight people may have a greater tendency toward heartburn, she says. "The data suggest that very obese people have a lax sphincter muscle, [which controls acid coming from the intestines], so more acid tends to reflux."

What foods can you safely eat? No easy answer there; everyone's different, says Srinivasan. Her advice: If it bothers you all the time, "don't eat it as often."

Here are a few more "food tips" from the National Heartburn Alliance:

  • Eat less. A super-sized diet might be contributing to your symptoms
  • Eat slowly. Doing so will make you feel fuller and decrease heartburn.
  • Keep a diary. Try writing down the foods you ate before you developed your heartburn. This will help you identify your food triggers and keep control over what you eat.
  • Eat safely. Keep a stash of "safe" snacks so you don't indulge in fatty foods like chips

Published Oct. 22, 2002.

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