Live Right Live Well: Digestion
The Truth about Low-acid Foods
By Stacey Colino for Live Right Live Well
Low-acid orange juice, low-acid coffee and tea, low-acid tomato sauce: Such food and beverage products are aimed at heartburn sufferers, but do they really alleviate symptoms? Maybe -- and maybe not.
Why Low-acid Foods Aren’t the Answer
“Intuitively, it sounds like a good idea to substitute low-acid versions of acidic foods, but I think a lot of this is urban myth,” says Dr. Cindy Yoshida, a gastroenterologist in Charlottesville, Va., and author of No More Digestive Problems. “You have to remember that the stomach is producing a lot of acid every day, especially after meals. Eating low-acid foods probably doesn’t reduce the amount of acid that’s produced by the stomach, so this may not help to control heartburn symptoms.”
In addition, “scientific studies suggest that while lifestyle modifications, such as eating lower-acid foods, work for a few people, most chronic heartburn sufferers generally feel better with acid-lowering medications,” she says.
This makes sense when you consider that it’s not acidic foods that cause heartburn or reflux. Rather, heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter -- which is supposed to keep stomach contents where they belong (in the stomach) -- relaxes too much or too often, causing stomach contents (including stomach acid) to flow upward. In other words, it’s the backwash of stomach acid that triggers the pain and burning sensation in the esophagus, not the acid from the foods you eat.
When Low-acid Foods May Help
However, if your esophagus is already irritated from chronic heartburn, eating acidic foods -- such as citrus fruits and juices, tomato sauce, coffee or tea -- could worsen or aggravate the burning sensation already occurring there. When that happens, avoiding acidic (or otherwise irritating) foods -- or switching to low-acid versions -- “may help some people improve their symptoms temporarily,” says Yoshida.
“There’s no harm in substituting low-acid foods,” says Yoshida, but the truth is, “for the vast majority of people with heartburn, doing that probably won’t make much of a difference.” So if heartburn pain is making you look warily at pizza and interfering with your enjoyment of your morning OJ and coffee, call your doctor. There are more effective options for managing heartburn symptoms than switching to low-acid foods, and you owe it to yourself to try them.
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.
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