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By Susan Male-Smith
Heartburn and the holidays: Perhaps you just accept that they go together. After all, more than the turkey gets stuffed on Thanksgiving. Then there’s football food all weekend long -- spicy chicken wings dipped in creamy blue cheese dressing, anyone? -- followed by party after party celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and finally New Year’s. Even if particular foods aren’t a problem, overeating may trigger heartburn if your eyes are confronted with a buffet table your stomach can’t handle.
Relax. There’s no need to panic. To help you navigate holiday feasts and buffets, we’ve put together a list of holiday heartburn do’s and don’ts. But first, it’s important to understand how food fuels the burn.
Heartburn doesn’t involve the heart at all but is caused when the stuff in your stomach backs up into your esophagus, the narrow tube that connects your throat to your stomach. Normally, the valve at the base of the esophagus acts as the food traffic police, letting whatever you ingest go down but not come back up. Sometimes, however, it slacks off on the job and opens too easily. Since your esophagus isn’t built to handle all that stomach acid that rises at that time, the result is heartburn.
Because heartburn generally occurs after a meal, it’s natural to think that specific foods are the culprit -- and indeed, medical textbooks all list the same trigger foods: alcohol, chocolate, citrus, coffee, peppermint, tomato-based products, spicy dishes and fatty foods. But there’s little proof that arbitrarily avoiding all these foods provides relief, notes Pat Baird, a registered dietitian specializing in intestinal disorders and the author of Be Good to Your Gut. For example, many people assume spicy foods are a heartburn no-no, but the truth is it’s likely the high fat content in these foods and not the spices that are to blame. “High-fat meals delay stomach emptying,” which gives stomach acid more time to back up, explains Dr. Lauren Gerson, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Certainly a large, high-fat dinner before bed can worsen heartburn, but a low-fat snack prior to sleeping may not be harmful.”
Heartburn Do’s and Don’ts
To enjoy holiday foods without holiday heartburn, consider the following:
DO keep a food diary for at least three to four days -- or until a pattern emerges -- by jotting down what, when and how much you eat, plus any symptoms you have.
DON’T automatically cut all potential trigger foods out of your diet. It’s simply not necessary. “Everyone’s body is different,” says Baird. You may find you can stomach even the riskiest food as long as you don’t eat too much of it or eat it too close to bedtime.
DO choose foods that are low in fat and high in fiber. The strongest research links a low-fat, high-fiber diet with less heartburn. Greasy, fried foods have the worst record.
DO walk, dance and otherwise move your body. Research shows exercise may help prevent heartburn.
DON’T stuff yourself. Stick to small, frequent meals. Even on Thanksgiving, take smaller-than-normal portions to start.
DO allow yourself time to enjoy your meal and give your brain time to register that it’s full.
DON’T lie down after eating. Wait two to three hours after a meal before lying down. Even leaning back in a recliner to watch a football game can add up to trouble. “Big meals + couch = disaster,” says Baird, who suggests cleaning up in the kitchen or walking the dog instead.
DON’T go overboard on alcohol, chocolate or peppermint. All three relax the esophageal valve, allowing reflux to occur.
DO make your favorite stuffing with whole-wheat croutons and use broth instead of melted butter to keep it moist.
DON’T forget to skim the fat when making gravy.
DO make pumpkin pie with evaporated skim milk and serve with just a dollop of whipped cream rather than smothering the entire pie.
DO make apple pies with a lattice crust to show off the apples and minimize the high-fat crust.
DON’T serve desserts a la mode.
DO “pre-eat” some sensible food before heading to a cocktail party. That way you won’t arrive ravenous.
DON’T stand near the hors d’oeuvres at parties.
DO survey the buffet table, then pick a few faves to savor one at a time instead of filling a plate.
DO enjoy your company with more talking and less eating.
DON’T let family “togetherness” get you down. “Stress also contributes to heartburn,” says Baird. So, avoid senseless family squabbles and maybe skip the Black Friday shopping madness this year.
Finally, DO tune in next month when we discuss holiday beverages that can contribute to heartburn and offer you alternative drink ideas instead. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving!
Susan Male-Smithis a registered dietitian and freelance nutrition and health writer. She has written for Family Circle, Redbook, Child and American Health, and she is a former editor of the Environmental Nutrition newsletter and co-author of Foods for Better Health.
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