Heartburn? Lose Weight for Relief

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 22, 2011
3 min read

Anyone who has ever suffered from heartburn or acid reflux knows all too well the discomfort and burning sensation in their chest after eating too much or the wrong kinds of foods.

Following a heartburn diet -- one that typically eliminates alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods -- is usually the first line of defense. Not smoking, sleeping with an extra pillow, medications, loose fitting clothes, and not overeating are other measures that can reduce symptoms.

But experts say losing weight can also help, especially if you are overweight.

Studies have shown that adults (both men and women) who gain a few extra pounds can increase their risk of heartburn – but losing weight can spell relief.

How does excess body fat increase the risk of heartburn? The exact mechanism is not well known, but researchers surmise that extra fat around the belly increases the pressure on the stomach, forcing fluid up into the esophagus.

Added pressure impacts the sphincter between the stomach and the esophagus, causing it to relax and allow acidic stomach contents into the esophagus. Extra weight can also impair the body’s ability to empty the stomach quickly. Overeating, even among thin people, can also increase pressure on the stomach and sphincter, as can pregnancy.

Researchers who analyzed 10,000 women in the Nurse’s Health Study found that weight gain of 10 to 20 pounds was associated with a threefold increase in heartburn symptoms. And when overweight people become obese, it further heightens their risk for developing gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. Obese people are nearly three times more likely than normal weight people to have heartburn.

But losing weight can reduce a woman’s risk of heartburn by as much as 40%, according to the Nurse’s Health Study.

Choose a heart-smart diet controlled in calories that you can stick with. A heart-healthy diet is also heartburn healthy.

It doesn’t really matter if the diet is high in fat, high in carbs, or low in protein, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine. Researcher Frank Sacks, MD, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, found little difference in weight loss when he compared four different diet plans that all varied in nutrient composition.

The important thing is to set daily calorie goals that are right for your age, activity level, gender, and weight loss goals. Your calorie goal should be no lower than 1,200 calories a day, and no higher than 2,400 calories a day. Aim for reasonable weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week.

Remember, daily physical activity can help you lose weight and reduce stress levels. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Gardening, house cleaning, and walking count.

No matter which diet plan you choose, these tips can help ease heartburn while you lose weight.

  • While you’re losing weight, avoid foods and drinks that trigger your heartburn, such as coffee, tomatoes, and spicy foods. You may be able to eat some of those foods after you’ve lost weight, but it’s best to avoid them at first. You can reintroduce them into your diet gradually, one by one, after you’ve reached your weight goal.
  • Steer clear of fried foods, chocolate, and alcohol. They commonly trigger heartburn. By avoiding these foods, you can cut calories without compromising good nutrition.
  • Divide your calories into smaller meals throughout the day. Smaller, frequent meals will reduce overeating and minimize abdominal pressure. If three square meals are what fit best into your life, keep portions small and try not to overfill your stomach.
  • Skip late night snacks. Try to eat your last meal several hours before bedtime. And remember to eat slowly and leisurely when you dine.

The bottom line? If you are overweight, you can likely ease your heartburn symptoms by losing some of those extra pounds. Plus you’ll boost your overall health – and put the zip back in your step.