11 Meal Planning Tips to Prevent Heartburn

Need heartburn relief? Find out which foods can cause heartburn -- and why.

From the WebMD Archives

If you're one of the 15 million Americans experiencing heartburn every day, there's more to discouraging the discomfort than avoiding certain foods and beverages.

Heartburn relief also has to do with the timing and size of your meals, says The American College of Gastroenterology, which is why planning your meals can be so important. But before we get to the planning part, it helps to know what causes heartburn.

Why Heartburn Happens

In people with frequent heartburn, the lower esophageal sphincter muscle (LES) may be weak, or relax too frequently, allowing stomach acids to get into the esophagus.

Heartburn happens when the lining of the esophagus comes in contact with too much stomach acid, producing a burning pain and injuring the esophagus. Yet heartburn can be halted -- that's where meal planning comes in.

11 Meal Planning Tips to Prevent Heartburn

If you have frequent or occasional heartburn, you can help decrease the tendency of the LES to relax, and decrease the likelihood that the stomach contents (and stomach acid) will splash up toward the LES by keeping in mind a few tips:

  • Avoid lying down for two to three hours after eating. When you lie down, it's physically easier for stomach contents to splash up toward the LES. By sitting up or standing, gravity helps stomach contents stay where they belong -- at the bottom of the stomach.

  • Avoid items that weaken the LES muscle (like chocolate, peppermint, caffeine, alcohol, fatty foods) and foods and beverages that may irritate a damaged esophagus lining (citrus and citrus juice, tomatoes and tomato juice, and chili peppers and black pepper).

  • Avoid eating large meals because the more volume in the stomach, the more likely the stomach contents will splash toward the LES. Try eating four to five small meals instead of two or three large ones.

  • Avoid high-fat meals because they tend to stay in the stomach longer; greasy or fried foods can also weaken the LES muscle.

  • Avoid smoking and avoid alcohol before, during, or after meals that seem to result in heartburn (like dinner). Both smoking and alcohol weaken the LES muscle.

  • Try waiting at least two hours after a meal before exercising if you find your heartburn seems to get worse after exercise.

  • Chew gum (a nonpeppermint flavor) after meals to stimulate saliva production (the bicarbonate in saliva neutralizes acid) and increase peristalsis (which helps move the stomach contents into the small intestine more quickly).

  • Plan your meals to encourage slow but sure weight loss if you are overweight. Extra weight around the midsection, especially, can press against the stomach and increase the pressure going up toward the LES.

  • Drink a small glass of water at the end of meals to help dilute and wash down any stomach acid that might be splashing up into the esophagus, suggests Shekhar Challa, MD, president of Kansas Medical Clinic and author of Spurn The Burn: Treat The Heat.

  • Plan on heartburn-friendly beverages like water, mineral water, decaffeinated tea, noncitrus juices, or nonfat or low-fat milk. Beverages to avoid include:
    • Sodas: These can bloat the abdomen, increasing the pressure in the stomach and encouraging stomach acid to splash up into the esophagus.
    • Juices: Tomato and citrus juices can irritate a damaged esophagus.
    • Alcoholic beverages, coffee (even decaf) and caffeinated tea and cola can increase the acid content in the stomach as well as relax the LES.

  • Eat a high fiber diet! A recent study found that people who followed a high-fiber meal plan were 20% less likely to have acid reflux symptoms, regardless of their body weight. You'll find fiber in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds (basically unprocessed plant foods).

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Sample Menu for a Day Without Heartburn

Reading the meal-planning suggestions above can be daunting and hard to visualize. Here's a sample day that ties together most of the heartburn-reducing suggestions so you can see how it all might fit together for you.

Breakfast

High-fiber hot or cold cereal with nonfat or 1% low-fat milk.
Less fat turkey bacon.
Apple juice.

Morning Snack

One container low-fat yogurt.
1/2 cup fresh fruit.
Decaf green tea.

Lunch

Roasted turkey & avocado sandwich on whole-wheat bread.
Baby carrots or other raw veggies.

* End the meal with a glass of water.

* Chew some nonpeppermint gum after the meal.

Afternoon Snack

Whole-grain crackers.
Reduced-fat cheese.
Apple slices.
Decaf green tea.

Evening Exercise

Dinner (moderate-sized portions of)

Higher fiber pasta (like Barilla Plus) with less-fat Alfredo sauce or pesto sauce with some meat or fish if desired (like cooked shrimp or strips of lean beef).
Steamed vegetables.
A light dessert (such as frozen fruit bar).

* End the meal with a glass of water.

* Chew some nonpeppermint gum after the meal.

Heartburn Triggers

Last but not least, don't forget to recognize the key triggers of heartburn. Some you can avoid, some you cannot.

  • Pregnancy
  • Eating a large, especially fatty meal
  • Tomato sauces (spaghetti & pizza)
  • Lying down after a meal
  • Chocolate, peppermint
  • Coffee and tea
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol and carbonated beverages
  • Some muscle relaxers and blood pressure medicines
  • Excess weight
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD on August 04, 2008

Sources

SOURCES: American College of Gastroenterology, "What Everyone Should Know About Gastrointestinal Disorders in Women." American College of Gastroenterology Consumer Health Guides. WebMD Medical Reference in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic Consult Newsletter : "Extinguishing Heartburn." Shekhar Challa, MD, president of Kansas Medical Clinic, author, Spurn the Burn: Treat The Heat. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, author, Tell Me What To Eat If I Have Acid Reflux. WebMD Medical News. High-Fiber Diet May Halt Heartburn.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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