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For people who suffer from heartburn, it's like receiving the bill after an expensive meal: Somehow, you're not surprised, but it takes you aback nonetheless.
Heartburn results “when acidic contents in the stomach backsplash into the esophagus,” explains Pat Baird, a registered dietition and board member of the National Heartburn Alliance.
The esophagus is the tube that runs from your throat to your stomach. At the base of the esophagus is your LES (lower esophageal sphincter), whose job it is to open, so that food can enter the stomach, then close to prevent any undigested food from backing up. But sometimes the LES relaxes at the wrong time, and like a door that isn't fully closed, it lets unwanted acid in.
The good news is that heartburn isn't inevitable.
To enjoy palate-pleasing meals without the miserable, burning sensation that acid reflux brings, Baird, author of six cookbooks, including Be Good to Your Gut: Recipes and Tips for People With Digestive Problems (Blackwell healthcare) recommends these measures:
Avoid fatty or greasy foods
These foods tend to stay in your stomach longer and may also cause the LES to relax, allowing food and acid to move backward into your esophagus. So pass on foods that are fried, sautéed or prepared in butter or oil. Instead, try steaming vegetables, seafood or poultry using broths, juices, water, wine or dry vermouth. This can be done on the stove top or in the microwave using a covered container. With some foods, like chicken or potatoes, roasting achieves an effect and flavor similar to deep-frying.
Limit acidic foods
Take care with foods like tomatoes, tomato-based products, citrus fruits and citrus juices, which can irritate your esophagus as they go down. Instead of tomato-based pasta sauces, try a light broth-type sauce, which can be perked up with herbs like basil and tarragon.
Cut back on chocolate, peppermint, spearmint, beer and other alcoholic beverages
These can relax your LES, allowing acid to back up.
Limit caffeinated beverages
Coffee, tea and colas can increase acid production and trigger heartburn.
Be choosy about condiments
Most people with heartburn can eat mustard, and some can handle small amounts of ketchup as well. Other heartburn-friendly condiments include soy sauce, reduced-fat mayonnaise and fat-free salad dressings. If a recipe calls for vinegar, try one made from cider or rice, which are generally milder and easier to tolerate.
Select spices wisely
Most heartburn sufferers can enjoy ground cinnamon, ground mace, ground ginger, coriander, dill, parsley, basil, thyme and tarragon. Garlic and onion powders, as well as dried onion pieces, are more heartburn-friendly than their fresh versions. Spices that are generally irritating include black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, Tabasco sauce, chili powder, curry powder, mint, cloves, mustard seeds, nutmeg and fresh garlic.
Finally, keep in mind that not all heartburn triggers affect all heartburn sufferers, so just because it’s listed above doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Instead, figure out which ones cause your personal misery by keeping a food diary for at least three days. Write down everything you eat and drink, then see if you can identify a pattern. Even after pinpointing your heartburn triggers, it may not be necessary to eliminate them completely.
Sometimes it's enough to simply cut back. It also helps if you don't “compound the felony” by eating multiple trigger foods in one meal, says Baird. By figuring out which foods bring on your symptoms and learning how to dine around them, you can bring back the joy of eating and say bye-bye to the burn.
Jennifer Viegas has covered health, food and fitness for ABC News, Discovery online, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Knight Ridder newspapers. She is also the author of more than 20 books, and a James Beard Award nominee.
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