This is not medical advice.
The Fourth of July is just around the corner, which means many Americans will be indulging in hamburgers, hot dogs and plenty of other fried, fatty foods. While these barbecue favorites are staples of the summer grilling season, they may come with an unwanted side effect: heartburn.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, nearly everyone experiences heartburn at some point in their lives. However, roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which entails heartburn symptoms multiple times per week, as well as potential esophageal damage.
Many potential factors can contribute to heartburn and GERD, but food-related causes are the most common — and the most preventable. Here’s what you need to know about heartburn, its causes and how to prevent it.
What Is Heartburn?
If you’ve ever experienced a painful burning sensation in your chest after eating a heavy meal, it was most likely heartburn, the most common symptom of acid reflux. This form of indigestion occurs when stomach acid gets regurgitated into the esophagus, resulting in a “burn” that runs from the chest up through the throat.
Heartburn may also present as a bitter or acidic taste in the mouth or general pain that worsens when you lie down or bend over. Some people who suffer from heartburn experience more-severe symptoms at night, which can disrupt sleep.
Certain medical conditions and medications can contribute to acid reflux and heartburn; however, food and lifestyle factors such as obesity, smoking, stress levels and pregnancy are the most prevalent causes.
Which Foods Can Cause Heartburn?
Many acidic foods and beverages can cause or worsen symptoms of acid reflux, heartburn and GERD. Some of the most common culprits that may be on your barbecue menu include:
- Fried, fatty foods that are drenched in oil, such as french fries, fried chicken and doughnuts.
- Processed tomato products such as ketchup, canned tomatoes, tomato paste and tomato juice.
- Alcohol, especially hard liquors and darker alcoholic drinks with a high alcohol content by volume.
- Soft drinks and carbonated water, since carbonation causes the esophagus to become more acidic.
- Regular and decaf coffee, which has a low or acidic pH, as well as many teas.
Other common heartburn “trigger foods” include chocolate, peppermint, garlic, onions, mustard, citrus fruits and spicy foods.
Easy Ways To Prevent Heartburn
It’s not always possible to avoid foods and drinks that contribute to heartburn, but there are some things you can do to reduce your likelihood of experiencing symptoms. Here are some simple strategies for preventing heartburn this barbecue season and beyond.
1. Watch your portion sizes.
Acid reflux most commonly occurs after big meals when the body is processing large amounts of food. The more you eat in one sitting, the more your stomach stretches, which pushes food and acid upward into your esophagus. By cutting down your portion sizes, you may reduce the likelihood of experiencing heartburn after you eat.
2. Watch the pace and timing of your meals.
The time of day you eat and how quickly you eat each meal can affect the frequency and severity of acid reflux and heartburn. Eating your meals more slowly can help your body pace itself when processing food, which limits the amount of activity happening in the stomach and esophagus at one time. Heartburn symptoms seem to worsen when a person eats a large meal shortly before bedtime, so try to finish eating at least three hours before you lie down for the night.
3. Wear loose-fitting clothing.
Tight clothing and belts can constrict the stomach and encourage acid to come back up the esophagus. If you know you’ll be eating a larger meal, wear loose-fitting clothing if possible to allow your stomach the room it needs.
4. Choose foods that help prevent heartburn.
Just as acidic foods and beverages can trigger heartburn symptoms, foods with neutral or higher pH levels can help reduce or prevent it. Load up your plate with these heartburn-reducing foods at your next barbecue:
- Starchy foods (rice and potatoes)
- Leafy greens
- Yellow squash
- Dairy products
5. Reduce your intake of alcohol, coffee and carbonated drinks.
You’re likely to find most of these beverages at a typical barbecue, but do your best to limit your intake and replace them with water instead. If you do choose to drink alcohol, red wine has less acid than white wine; beer (although acidic and carbonated) has a lower alcohol content than hard liquor; and clear liquors such as gin and vodka are less likely to cause stomach irritation than darker liquors such as whiskey, rum and brandy.
6. Chew sugarless gum after you eat.
Chewing gum in itself does not prevent acid reflux from occurring. However, it does produce more saliva in your mouth, which can help neutralize and clear away the stomach acid that causes heartburn. A study by the National Institute of Health found that consistently chewing gum increases esophageal and pharyngeal pH, and sugarless gum containing bicarbonate had the greatest impact.
7. Ask your doctor about medication for frequent heartburn.
Chewable over-the-counter medications such as Tums and Rolaids contain calcium carbonate, which helps to neutralize stomach acid and alleviate mild forms of acid reflux and heartburn. However, if you’re experiencing frequent and severe symptoms, prescription heartburn medication may be your best option for lasting relief and avoiding further esophageal damage.
Some commonly prescribed heartburn medications include:
- Proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec (omeprazole), Protonix (pantoprazole), Prevacid (lansoprazole) and Nexium (esomeprazole).
- Histamine-2 Antagonists such as Pepcid (famotidine).
- Aluminum Complexes such as Carafate (sucralfate).
- Dopamine Receptor Antagonists such as Reglan (metoclopramide).
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