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Take the Heartburn Out of the Holidays With These Simple Food Swaps

Your favorite dishes may make pain and burning worse.

Thanksgiving turkey
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Odds are you’re familiar with heartburn, that feeling of pain and burning in your chest you sometimes get after eating certain foods. Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, which occurs when acid sloshes back up through your esophagus, the tube that connects the stomach to the mouth.

Occasional episodes of acid reflux are normal and common. If these episodes occur two or more times weekly, however, it can be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a more serious digestive condition linked to a slightly higher risk of esophageal cancer.

To avoid or limit the chances of heartburn over the holidays, you may want to tweak your usual end-of-year feast. Here are some typical menus items to watch for, along with potentially better-for-you seasonal substitutes.

friends toasting with wine
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SKIP: ALCOHOL

Holiday parties often boast a fully stocked bar, but getting a little tipsy may cause heartburn later. Alcohol accelerates the production of acid in the stomach and can relax the lower esophageal sphincter—a ring of muscle separating your esophagus from your stomach—leading to reflux.

Even though the effects of drinking alcohol vary from person to person, it’s best to play it safe and stick to iced water or tea.

pot full of pasta sauce
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SKIP: TOMATOES, ONIONS AND GARLIC

Tomatoes are acidic and can cause the body to produce extra stomach acid. If you’re serving a salad, leave the tomatoes to the side for guests to add on their own. Swap out marinara sauce on pasta for a light pesto.

Along the same lines, onions and garlic may increase your risk of heartburn. Some classic holiday sides like green bean casserole are loaded with fried onions and garlic. Instead, try satisfying your taste buds with a new side like sauteed green beans or roasted carrots.

vine ripe tomatoes
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ADD: MOST OTHER VEGETABLES

Most vegetables are generally safe in terms of heartburn, but pay attention to the preparation method. Avoid frying or cooking with large amounts of fat, which can aggravate heartburn. Steamed asparagus, sweet peppers and mild green veggies such as arugula and collard greens with a very light sprinkle of salt and pepper are healthy options. Sauteed spinach with sliced apples and walnuts is a nice change-up, too.

soda with a straw on ice
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SKIP: CAFFEINATED AND CARBONATED BEVERAGES

Chances are you’ll need a jolt of caffeine at some point during the holidays, but too much may do more harm than good. Instead of that double-shot espresso, try caffeine-free tea or coffee.

Bubbly drinks can aggravate heartburn, as well. Instead of soda or seltzer, opt for water flavored with apples or berries.

apples in a bin
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ADD: NON-CITRUS FRUITS

Many citrus fruits like lemons and oranges may trigger symptoms of acid reflux. Instead, try non-citrus fruits like bananas, mangos, apples and peaches, which are low in acid and less likely to relax the esophageal sphincter. Snack on sliced apples with a sprinkle of cinnamon or a fruit salad with nuts.

a slice of pecan pie
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SKIP: HIGH-FAT FOODS

Fried foods and desserts like pies and cakes are high in fat, and have been known to slow down the emptying of the stomach. If you overdo it on these picks, you may have some heartburn. So, steer clear of the fried turkey and extra slices of pecan pie. Indulge in a small serving of desserts on special occasions, and if you’re craving something sweet with dinner, try a whole-grain dinner roll with a light drizzle of honey.

a cup of cocoa with peppermint
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SKIP: CHOCOLATE AND PEPPERMINT

Looking to load up on candy canes and cocoa this season? Not so fast. Both peppermint and chocolate can relax the lower esophageal sphincter, leading to reflux. Instead, choose treats like angel food cake, marshmallows or low-fat frozen yogurt. Or opt for fruit-based sweets such as poached pears or baked apples.

roast turkey
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ADD: LEAN PROTEIN

Lean meats like baked or grilled turkey or chicken are easier on the digestive system than fried or fatty meats. For a full, satisfying meal with a lower chance of heartburn, try a few slices of holiday turkey or chicken with a side of steamed asparagus, oven-roasted potatoes and a whole-grain dinner roll.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Mayo Clinic. “Heartburn.” April 17, 2020. Accessed January 6, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. “Acid reflux and GERD: The same thing?” July 31, 2019. Accessed January 6, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. “Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).” May 22, 2020. Accessed January 6, 2021.
American Cancer Society. “Esophageal Cancer Risk Factors.” June 9, 2020. Accessed January 6, 2021.
American Addiction Centers. “The Effects of Alcohol on the Body.” November 3, 2020. Accessed January 7, 2021.
University Hospitals. “The Best and Worst Foods for Acid Reflux.” April 15, 2014. Accessed January 6, 2021.
About GERD: International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. “Diet Changes for GERD.” September 19, 2019. Accessed January 6, 2021.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).” April 2020. Accessed January 6, 2021.
American Family Physician. “Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease: More Than Heartburn.” September 1999. 1;60(3):885-886.
American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. “Diet and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).” 2014. Accessed January 6, 2021.
Cleveland Clinic. “GERD (Chronic Acid Reflux).” December 6, 2019. Accessed January 6, 2021.
Harvard Health Publishing. “By the way, doctor: What can you tell me about peppermint oil?.” July 2009. Accessed January 6, 2021.
DW Murphy & DO Castell. “Chocolate and heartburn: evidence of increased esophageal acid exposure after chocolate ingestion.” American Journal of Gastroenterology. June 1988. 83(6):633-6.
M Jarosz & A Taraszewska. “Risk factors for gastroesophageal reflux disease: the role of diet.” Przeglad Gastroenterologiczny. 2014. 9(5), 297–301.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “GERD Diet: Foods That Help with Acid Reflux (Heartburn).” 2021. Accessed January 6, 2021.
UMPC. “The Right Diet for GERD.” January 5, 2016. Accessed January 6, 2021.
Tums.com. “Are There Any Specific Diets That Can Reduce Acid Reflux?” 2021. Accessed January 6, 2021.

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