Most of us have experienced heartburn at one time or another — say, after indulging in spicy chicken wings late at night. Such isolated incidents of heartburn can usually be treated with an over-the-counter antacid.
If you find, however, that you experience heartburn more frequently without any discernable cause — or if other symptoms accompany your heartburn (such as a sore throat, cough, or bitter or sour taste in the mouth), then you might be suffering from acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
If that sounds like you, then you can learn more about this condition, as well as how to combat it with a high protein diet plan, by reading on!
Acid reflux vs. occasional heartburn
First, it’s worth explaining the difference between acid reflux and heartburn. Acid reflux occurs when the acid in your stomach moves backward, up into your esophagus. Usually, this is prevented by a muscle between the stomach and the esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which tightens after food moves into the stomach.
The LES serves this one purpose, to provide a barrier between the stomach and the esophagus to prevent stomach fluids from reaching the throat. When the LES muscle is weak or malfunctioning, acid reflux can result. Regurgitation, the sensation that fluids or foods are moving up into the esophagus, can accompany Heartburn. Regurgitation is an “alert” symptom, and you should always contact a GERD expert for an evaluation of your condition if you are experiencing this more than once or twice a month.
LEARN MORE: The symptoms of acid reflux – GERD 101
The risk of ignoring acid reflux symptoms
Too many adults ignore their heartburn and other symptoms resulting from acid reflux. However, if you experience heartburn or regurgitation more than twice a week, the acid from the stomach may create inflammation of the membrane of the esophagus.
If left untreated, GERD can result in scarring, bleeding, and ulcers in the esophagus; a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus (BE). Ignoring BE can lead to a form of esophageal cancer known as adenocarcinoma (AC).
Are you at risk of these complications? People who are more likely to experience acid reflux or GERD include:
- people who are overweight or obese
- people with asthma
- pregnant women (often only during pregnancy)
- hiatal hernia patients
LEARN MORE: Acid reflux and potential complications
Why You Should Rethink Those Medications
Patients are frequently prescribed a class of medication called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Two of the commonly known over-the-counter proton pump inhibitors are Nexium and Prilosec. They work by reducing the production of stomach acid. Antacids simply neutralize the acid.
As with most medications, proton pump inhibitors only address the symptoms of acid reflux. They will not prevent the symptoms from reoccurring, nor can they improve or eliminate the original, underlying problem. Consequently, reflux will continue (often without symptoms) and your condition can progress to complications such as BE or AC.
Most healthcare practitioners say that antacids and proton pump inhibitors are safe for occasional use. But long-term reliance on products like Prilosec and Prevacid has been linked by the FDA to bone loss (and osteoporosis), pneumonia, and deficiencies in vitamin B-12 and magnesium.
Most experts recommend a high protein diet
A GERD-friendly eating plan, which is essentially a high protein diet that avoids certain foods, is superior to medication because it can prevent or stop reflux when combined with a few other lifestyle changes. Let’s first focus on the elements of a high protein diet and then move on to the necessary lifestyle changes that will help you enjoy eating again, reflux-free.
Designing a High Protein Diet that Works for You
The goal of a GERD-friendly high protein diet is to reduce your acid reflux symptoms, and that type diet has several attributes:
- Low-fat content – Less fat requires less bile and acid for digestion and faster digestion time.
- High-protein content – More protein per ounce, more health benefits.
- Correct portion size – We think a 3.5 – 4.0 ounce is ideal for high-protein meats with an additional ounce or two for fish based on the fat content. Total daily consumption should be around 6.0 ounces.
High protein diet that is low in overall fat and saturated fat
There are a lot of foods that contain protein such as beef, chicken, and fish. However, it is important to differentiate between low-fat and high-fat selections. The Mayo Clinic agrees:
“If you want to follow a high-protein diet, choose your protein wisely. Good choices include soy protein, beans, nuts, fish, skinless poultry, lean beef, pork and low-fat dairy products. Avoid processed meats.”
For example, red meats are packed with protein, vitamin B-12, and iron. Some cuts are much leaner in fat than others as noted in the lists below:
- Sirloin tip steak – 4 oz. – 7 g fat / 3 g Sat fat / 23 g protein
- Eye of round steak – 4 oz. – 10 g fat / 4 g Sat fat / 23 g protein
- Top sirloin steak – 4 oz. – 12 g fat / 5 g Sat fat / 23 g protein
- New York strip steak – 4 oz.- 17 g fat / 7 g Sat fat / 23 g protein
- Filet mignon – 4 oz. – 20 g fat / 8 g Sat fat / 29 g protein
Fish have similar, but improved nutritional profiles. However, there is still a significant difference between high-fat and low-fat fish. As you can see from the list below, fish selection is important as well:
- Cod (broiled) – 6 oz. – 2 g fat / 0 g Sat fat / 38 g protein
- Rainbow trout (broiled) – 6 oz. – 8 g fat / 2 g Sat fat / 44 g protein
- Swordfish (broiled) – 6 oz. – 8 g fat / 2 g Sat fat / 42 g protein
- Atlantic salmon (baked) – 6 oz. – 14 g fat / 2 g Sat fat / 44 g protein
These nutritional profiles highlight that selection from within different food groups is critical to how much fat and protein we consume, along with the potential for acid reflux symptoms. The less fat means faster digestion with less acid and fewer symptoms.
You still need fats and carbohydrates in your diet
Don’t get us wrong, you need balance in your high protein diet, and some fats and carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet.
Carbohydrates are important since they provide much of your body’s short-term energy, so we don’t want to skimp here. Proteins are for energy too, but it takes longer to break them down than carbohydrates. Fats are also critical to your body since they improve vitamin absorption, which is necessary for your immune system. But as we know, too much fat can also cause severe health issues.
There is a wide range in the number of grams of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that you can consume daily. For an adult targeting a calorie intake of 1,990 calories, a goal might be something like this:
- Carbohydrates – 236 g
- Proteins – 95 g
- Fats – 63 g
Since that is a target, and our diet changes day to day, consider a daily range such as those noted below:
- Carbohydrates – 200 g to 300 g
- Proteins – 50 g to 170 g
- Fats – 45 g to 75 g
If you are considering a high protein diet, we suggest that you do more research at top medical sites like mayoclinic.com. Additionally, we highly recommend that you work closely with your family doctor to monitor your progress and fine-tune your diet to your lifestyle, medical issues, and specific weight and fitness needs.
LEARN MORE: 5 Steps to an effective acid reflux diet
Lifestyle Changes to Compliment Your High Protein
Eating more protein is a great start, but you are not done. We recommend several lifestyle changes that should be made as part of a comprehensive program to reduce GERD symptoms.
Several Other Trigger Foods to Avoid
Unfortunately, some of the culprits of acid reflux are also the substances that we enjoy the most. In addition to fatty foods, these include chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and peppermint.
Foods That Irritate the Esophagus and Trigger Symptoms
If you’re already prone to reflux, it’s a good idea to steer clear of foods and beverages that may irritate the esophageal lining — to avoid not only discomfort but also the development of ulcers. These include acidic items like tomatoes, tomato products, citrus fruits, and orange or grapefruit juices. Garlic can also be irritating, as can chili peppers or foods made with chilies. However, many adults can tolerate small amounts of each or the dried version.
Get Your Fiber
Eating foods that are high in dietary fiber is one essential aspect of an acid reflux diet plan. Of course, doing so is beneficial to your health in many other ways, as well. Choose unprocessed plant foods like vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes.
There is also an added benefit to choosing a high-fiber diet. These foods will fill you up, leaving you satisfied and much less likely to seek out those high fat-foods that can exacerbate your acid reflux symptoms.
What can you drink to minimize heartburn and reflux? Water is the best choice. We recommend a daily amount using the following formula: daily water in ounces = your weight in pounds / 2. At 180 pounds, we recommend 90 ounces of water daily. Another benefit of drinking more water is that you will avoid those hunger pangs that cause most adults to snack and overeat.
We also suggest avoiding too much water during a meal and for 60 minutes after a meal. Acid is necessary for proper and fast digestion; so don’t dilute it with water during or directly after the meal.
Non-caffeinated teas (preferably green teas), non-citrus fruit juices, and low fat / no-fat milk are also acceptable. We highly recommend that you avoid sodas and any carbonated beverages. They will bloat the stomach and put pressure on the diaphragm and the LES.
Stick to Smaller Meals
An important part of a high protein diet plan is consuming several smaller meals and snacks throughout the day, rather than just two or three large ones. Strive to eat a small, high-protein breakfast (eggs and low-fat yogurt for example) within 30 minutes of getting out of bed.
Three small meals and two snacks spread throughout the day will keep your blood sugars in balance. More importantly, with the additional water consumption, you will not feel the urge to overeat or take that second helping.
Resist the After-Meal Nap
Not much is more tempting than a nice lie-down after you’ve consumed a filling meal, but resist the temptation unless you want to be awakened by the discomfort of reflux symptoms. Stand or sit upright, and let gravity help keep the stomach’s contents where they belong: in the stomach. That is more important at night. Don’t go to bed within three hours of eating your last meal.
You already know there are dozens of excellent reasons to quit your smoking habit. Helping to alleviate acid reflux is just one more. Smoking weakens the LES, resulting in more GERD symptoms. If you need help kicking nicotine, there are plenty of resources available.
Are You Ready to Reclaim Your Life?
Many people think of heartburn from acid reflux as an inconvenience, akin to a case of the sniffles or a stubbed toe. However, those who suffer from these conditions on an ongoing basis understand living with this disease can be very difficult. Remember, GERD is a progressive disease – only you can stop it from progressing!
If you are already experiencing frequent heartburn and other acid reflux symptoms, or your primary care doctor diagnosed you with acid reflux disease, you need to start working with an expert partner.
We encourage you to contact a GERD expert who can help you put together a high protein diet plan, and offer you additional tips and encouragement to design your path to relief and good health.