By Lauren O’Connor, MS, RDN, RYT
Heartburn — that stinging sensation you feel in your chest — is commonly triggered by greasy, spicy or overly fatty foods as well as eating big meals in one sitting. Highly acidic foods, increased pressure on the abdomen (think: tight-fitting clothes) and stress can all exacerbate the condition.
Many of us may experience heartburn as an occasional discomfort, but if you’re dealing with heartburn more than twice a week, you may have a condition known as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
GERD is a common digestive disorder that affects up to 28 percent of the population in North America, per June 2018 research in Missouri Medicine. It’s a disorder of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the valve that controls the flow of food and drinks from your esophagus to your stomach. The LES opens and closes to prevent stomach acids from traveling back up, but its failure to close properly contributes to acid reflux. Delayed gastric emptying (when food remains in the stomach for prolonged periods of time) can loosen the LES, contributing to heartburn, the most classic symptom of GERD.
While you may reach for over-the-counter relief when symptoms strike, it’s important to consider dietary and lifestyle changes if you have repeated episodes of heartburn. Slowing down when you eat, eating smaller meals, limiting trigger foods and sitting upright post-meal may help prevent heartburn and acid reflux without medication, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
But you’ll also want to add fiber to your heartburn-fighting toolbox: The nutrient can help prevent GERD symptoms, so you’ll want to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains in your diet.
How a Fiber-Rich Diet Can Help Prevent GERD Symptoms
Fiber is a nutrient essential to your heartburn relief. While too much fiber can be taxing on the system, adequate fiber can support digestive health and prevent complications from acid reflux. Here’s how.
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1. Fiber Helps Quicken Digestion and Delayed Gastric Emptying
Diets low in fiber are associated with delayed gastric emptying and poor digestive motility (when food doesn’t move through the digestive tract as quickly as it should), which can cause acid reflux and increase the risk of GERD, according to a June 2018 study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.
American diets are often devoid of fiber as they tend to be lacking in the recommended amounts fruit, vegetables and whole grains all while being high in saturated fats, sodium and excess sugars, per a 2019 article in Nutrients. Unfortunately, eating this way can result in poor digestion and delayed gastric emptying.
“Gastric emptying is controlled by the quantity and composition of the content,” says Madathupalayam Madhankumar, MD, a family physician who specializes in surgical gastroenterology. “In slow gastric emptying, acid reflux is due to increased intragastric pressure. Also, undigested food can cause burping, resulting in heartburn.”
This is why it’s crucial to avoid eating large meals and important to focus on eating nutrients that support healthy digestion — including fiber.
“High-fiber foods are typically lower in fat and not heavily processed, which reduces heartburn and gastric issues,” says dietitian Jana Mowrer, RDN. “Fiber-rich foods also contain prebiotics, which help feed probiotics to help increase gut health and healthy gut bacteria,” she says.
2. Fiber Improves Esophageal Function
Getting enough dietary fiber increases the minimal resting pressure of the LES, per the World Journal of Gastroenterology study.
High-fiber foods may help keep the LES from releasing too soon or too often by binding to nitrate oxide contained in those foods, diminishing their effect of loosening the LES. Remember, when the LES becomes loosened, it may cause heartburn and other reflux issues.
Eating enough fiber helps improve the tone of the LES, preventing acid from refluxing back up. Gradually build up to meeting the dietary fiber recommendations, which is 25 to 35 grams per day.
3. Fiber May Help Neutralize Stomach Acid
Managing stomach acid is key to heartburn relief. Whether or not you take meds, a healthy diet including adequate fiber is important.
It not only keeps your digestion system running smoothly, but it may also help prevent excess acidity. Certain fibers have been shown to reduce gastric acidity, lowering the frequency and potential damage of acid reflux, per the 2018 study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.
Enjoy high-fiber whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal and sprouted bread. These foods are a good source of fiber and may help absorb stomach acid, per the Gastroenterology Consultants of San Antonio.