Recently, I went over to a friend’s house for dinner and to watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. My friend offered me a choice of beverages and I opted for a glass of red wine. As we sat down to eat, she joined me in drinking a glass, but noted that she and her husband were cutting back because they were suffering from acid reflux. That got me thinking - what is reflux and what foods should you avoid to prevent it?
It turns out that acid reflux - known medically as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) - becomes more prevalent in people as they age. In "How I Checked Out of Heartburn Hotel" featured in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of More, Marcia Menter explained that after age 50, the lower esophageal sphincter loses its ability to keep your stomach contents in place. By relaxing at the wrong time, the sphincter allows digestive acid to back up into the esophagus. People may not realize that they have GERD, but (like me) may be waking up "coughing and choking with what felt like bad postnasal drip," Menter wrote. These episodes are actually acid reflux.
So what dietary changes can you make to avoid GERD? Turning down that glass of red wine is one of them. HealthCentral’s acid reflux site reports that peppermint, spearmint, alcohol, decaffeinated coffee, and carbonated drinks may increase GERD attacks. Furthermore, people who are overweight may want to cut down on all fats in order to avoid GERD. More also notes that chocolate, tomatoes, citrus fruits, caffeine, mint, and fried foods should be placed on the bad list. In More, Dr. David Greenwald, a gastroenterologist at Montefiore Medical Center, suggests dropping one of these foods at a time to determine if it really is behind your reflux. "If you’ve stopped eating tomato products for two weeks and your symptoms are better, you won’t have to give up coffee and chocolate," he said.
I found that out firsthand how to identify trigger foods when I recently went to happy hour with a couple of friends. The restaurant’s appetizer menu where we met was a who’s who of fried food: fried chicken tenders, fried cheese sticks, fried onion rings, fried mushrooms, fried pickle chips, fried green tomatoes, and French fries. And of course, we opted for the sampler platter with a little bit of everything (as well as a couple of margaritas). Two hours later as we were leaving the restaurant, I realized that I no longer could eat fried foods to my heart’s content. And sleeping that night wasn’t a picnic either as the acid reflux really kicked in. A few days later, I told my friends that, as much I once could eat whatever I wanted, I no longer could. A restaurant that only offered fried food was out for future happy hours; instead, I needed a place with other menu options that didn’t give me indigestion and that couldn’t lead to acid reflux.
So what can you eat to help with GERD? HealthCentral’s acid reflux site reports that eating protein (low-fat or skim dairy products, poultry and fish) may help strengthen the sphincter’s valve. Whole grain products that are rich in selenium may help protect against dangerous cell changes caused by acid reflux. Additionally, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help you avoid GERD, although you should limit eating those that are acidic (such as oranges, lemons, grapefruit, pineapple, and tomatoes).
After realizing that I periodically suffer from GERD, I am finding that I’m getting more instinctive in identifying what foods I shouldn’t eat. Pineapple no longer sounds good to me, and I can do without carbonated drinks. But at this point, I’m not willing to give up my glass (or two) of red wine.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.