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Fire Up the Grill This Summer, Not Your Heartburn

Young adult friends sitting outdoors for lunchtime barbecue

You have just enjoyed a fabulous summer cookout with friends and family and are settling in for a relaxing evening when….it hits. That dull pain beneath your ribcage, that sour taste in your mouth and a burning sensation in your upper abdomen. “Heartburn again?” you think. “This is the third time this week! What’s wrong with me?”

You may have gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD – and you are not alone. Often diagnosed in people who experience acid reflux symptoms more than twice a week, it is estimated that one in five American adults have GERD. Symptoms may include:

  • Belching
  • A burning sensation in the upper abdomen/chest
  • Bitter taste in the mouth
  • Nausea and possibly some regurgitation

“GERD is a condition in which the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) muscle between the esophagus and the stomach doesn’t close properly, allowing stomach acids to back up into the throat and mouth,” says University Hospitals gastroenterologist, Dany Raad, MD. “While not a life threatening condition in itself, it can be painful and lead to chronic sore throat, damage to the esophagus and a more serious health problem called Barrett’s Esophagus (BE) – a condition in which precancerous changes take place in the cells of the lower esophagus. It is estimated that one in ten people with GERD will develop BE,” adds Dr. Raad.

Tips to Take Antacids off the Menu

Summer cookouts are a fun, all-American pastime but most menus include foods that are common triggers for acid reflux, or heartburn. Instead of gulping back antacids, limiting or avoiding the following foods and beverages may help keep the acid in your stomach where it belongs:

  • Tomatoes
  • Raw onions and garlic
  • Fatty red meat
  • Salad dressings (oil & vinegar and creamy)
  • Fried foods including potato chips
  • Ice cream and other fatty desserts
  • Alcohol
  • Citrus fruits and beverages, like lemonade
  • Carbonated beverages

So What Can I Eat?

With a few easy substitutions, you can still enjoy your family BBQ. Registered dietitian, Jayna Metalonis, MS, RD, LD offers these tips for making your cookout more GERD-friendly:

  • Make your burgers with extra-lean beef – even better, use lean ground turkey or chicken breast
  • Instead of greasy chicken wings, grill skinless chicken breast and serve with low-sodium sauce
  • Add grilled fish to the menu – salmon, tuna, swordfish or halibut are great choices
  • Use low-fat instead of full-fat cheeses
  • Make coleslaw and potato salad with fat-free mayonnaise or try substituting mayo with plain Greek yogurt
  • Serve baked, not fried, potato or tortilla chips
  • Enjoy raw or grilled fruit kabobs for dessert

Lifestyle Changes Can Help

In addition to avoiding common food triggers, there are some simple lifestyle changes you can make to get your reflux under control, including:

  • Stop smoking
  • Lose weight
  • Eat a low-sodium, high-fiber diet
  • East smaller, more frequent meals and snacks
  • Get frequent, moderate exercise (check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program)
  • Stop eating at least two hours before bedtime
  • Stay upright after eating to help keep stomach acid in its place

If Dietary and Lifestyle Changes Don’t Work

Persistent heartburn symptoms?

Our digestive health experts can help with the latest diagnostic and treatment options.

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The standard, first-line treatment for chronic heartburn is over-the-counter medications, including antacids like Tums, H2 blockers like Zantac and Pepcid or protein pump inhibitors (PPIs) such as Prevacid and Nexium. Although these medications work to control symptoms, they do not address the underlying cause. In addition, they don’t work well for everybody and long-term use is not advisable unless monitored by a doctor.

If other treatments have failed and symptoms persist, surgery may be recommended. “The surgical options we offer are minimally invasive and designed to restore the normal anatomy and function of the lower esophageal sphincter,” says Christopher Towe, MD, thoracic and esophageal surgeon at University Hospitals. “Most patients tolerate the procedures very well, recover quickly and experience significant or total relief from their symptoms,” he adds.

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It is important to talk to a digestive health specialist about your symptoms so that an accurate diagnosis can be made and an appropriate treatment plan developed. University hospitals offers diagnostic services and treatments at locations throughout the region, including a new state-of-the-art Heartburn Center at UH Parma Medical Center, which is dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of heartburn and GERD.