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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

What Is Gastroesophageal Reflux?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach. Many people, including pregnant women, suffer from heartburn or acid indigestion caused by GERD. Doctors believe that some people suffer from GERD due to a condition called hiatal hernia. In most cases, heartburn can be relieved through diet and lifestyle changes; however, some people may require medication or surgery.

Gastroesophageal refers to the stomach and esophagus. Reflux means to flow back or return. Therefore, gastroesophageal reflux is the return of the stomach's contents back up into the esophagus.

In normal digestion, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens to allow food to pass into the stomach and closes to prevent food and acidic stomach juices from flowing back into the esophagus. Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when the LES is weak or relaxes inappropriately, allowing the stomach's contents to flow up into the esophagus. 

The severity of GERD depends on LES dysfunction as well as the type and amount of fluid brought up from the stomach and the neutralizing effect of saliva.


GERD signs and symptoms include:

  • A burning sensation in your chest (heartburn), sometimes spreading to your throat, along with a sour taste in your mouth
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Dry cough
  • Hoarseness or sore throat
  • Regurgitation of food or sour liquid (acid reflux)
  • Sensation of a lump in your throat

Cooking Tips to Minimize the Risk of GERD

Spice It Right

Some spices can irritate your stomach lining; many people who have heartburn are bothered by hot spices — black and crushed red pepper, chili powder, and Tabasco sauce. Fresh garlic and onions are also known to cause heartburn for some, though you may be able to substitute dehydrated or dried versions (garlic powder and dried onions). You can also add flavor to foods with herbs such as ground cinnamon, basil, dill, parsley, thyme, and tarragon, which don’t usually cause acid reflux symptoms. 

Replace Acidic Foods

Heartburn results from too much acid in the stomach. So you don’t want to make it worse by eating foods that are highly acidic, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, pineapple). Some people with heartburn can tolerate small amounts of ketchup, but it may be safer to use reduced-fat mayonnaise or mustard instead. Vinegar is also highly acidic; cider vinegar and rice vinegar, however, are less acidic and may be less likely to provoke heartburn symptoms than regular vinegar.

Go for Low-fat Dairy

The problem with dairy foods is that they can be high in fat. Fat stays in the stomach longer, causing more digestive juices to flow. The juices contain acid, which causes heartburn. It’s important to have some dairy in your diet, but if you have heartburn, you're better off choosing the low-fat or nonfat versions of yogurts, cheeses, and sour cream. When baking, you can use butter substitutes or applesauce in place of the fat. For casseroles that call for cream soup, choose reduced-fat versions.

Trim the Fat

If you have heartburn, you should choose leaner cuts of red meat, such as round, chuck, sirloin, and tenderloin. When buying chicken or turkey, remember that white meat has less fat than dark. Cut any visible fat from your meat, and discard the skin of chicken and turkey, which is pure fat. Besides minimizing the fat content in your stomach, you want to choose lower-fat — and thus lower-calorie — foods because; being overweight also contributes to heartburn.

Lighter Cooking Methods

When you have heartburn, you should prepare your foods with as little fat as possible. Deep-frying and frying are out. Sauté sparingly, or even better, use nonstick sprays instead of butter and oil to coat the pan. To prepare meats and vegetables, try steaming, broiling, grilling, roasting, and microwaving because these methods require little, if any, fat. What about taste? Flavor your cooked meats and vegetables with broths and juices rather than oils and fats.

Eating Less

Portion control is a key to avoiding heartburn. When you eat big meals, the food stays in your stomach longer, just as fatty foods do. The longer the food sits in your stomach, the more your stomach fills with acid that causes heartburn. In addition, when you minimize portion sizes, you may be able to tolerate very small amounts of some heartburn-triggering foods.

Room for Dessert

Just because you experience acid reflux doesn’t mean you have to pass on dessert — but the same rules apply for avoiding heartburn. Opt for lower-fat versions of cakes and ice cream. Chocolate commonly causes heartburn, so you may want to avoid it altogether. Instead, choose desserts made with vanilla or strawberry or reduced-fat peanut butter. Another flavor to beware of is peppermint, which can cause acid reflux symptoms in some people by relaxing the valve between the stomach and the esophagus; you may want to stay away from candy canes and grasshopper pies. But with these few restrictions, you can feel free to indulge in dessert after your meal — a meal that you've done your best to prepare in such a way as to avoid any and all heartburn triggers.

Sources: WebMD, Mayo Clinic, EveryDay Health