The Best Comfort Foods for Digestive Health
If you suffer from heartburn or gastrointestinal distress after eating certain foods, you don't have to be told that fried chicken, burgers, lasagna, and the like are not your friends. But you don't have to de-friend some of those feel-good favorites.
What's the Problem With Comfort Foods?
They're high in fat so they sit in the stomach for a long time, which increases reflux, says John E. Pandolfino, M.D. Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Indeed, a full stomach can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, and that's what causes acid to back up in to the esophagus.
"On the flipside, even the so-called best foods can be problematic for some people," says Jaime Koufman, M.D., author of Dropping Acid: The Reflux Diet Cookbook & Cure "Take the banana, for example. It's a great non-acidic food, but it is trouble for 1 in 20 people that suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease."
A little trial and error will help you find foods that are tolerable and can make you feel better—whether it's mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, or mom's pumpkin pie.
In the meantime, here are nine foods you can take comfort in eating:
- Bread. Whole-grain breads and other grains such as bulgur, barley, and rice are easy on the stomach. "As long as you don't have trouble swallowing, bread is a great food for making people feel comfortable," says Pandolfino. And that includes soft pretzels, too! Bonus: Whole grains are digested more slowly, which is better for nutrient absorption.
- Oatmeal. "Oatmeal is filling and doesn't cause reflux," says Koufman. "It's so versatile. I've added every different kind of fruit to it and many different sweeteners. But I really love adding honey to my oatmeal." And by the way, honey is a comfort food, too. Bonus: Oatmeal is a great source of soluble and insoluble fiber, which aids digestion.
- Spinach or broccoli omelet. Koufman loves eggs as a comfort food. But if you're concerned about fat and cholesterol, use her trick to reduce fat without losing flavor: "Since the yolk is about the same size in every egg, I buy jumbo eggs. This way, when I go to make an omelet, I use one whole egg and toss the yolks from the 2 other eggs. That one yolk is enough to flavor the omelet so it tastes like real eggs, not just egg whites." If you'd like to order a three-egg omelet with spinach and broccoli at a restaurant, request the omelet to have just one egg yolk and two egg whites. Bonus: The calcium content of spinach and broccoli help to neutralize the acid in the stomach.
- Flank steak. Red meat is high in protein, high in fat, and tends to stay in the stomach for a very long time. If you have reflux, select a cut that's less fatty, such as flank steak. It's relatively lowfat and relatively inexpensive. Another tactic if you want to eat beef—and don't want to be awake all night with reflux—enjoy it earlier in the day, like at brunch, says Koufman. Bonus: Not only is this lean, red meat a good source of protein, it's also high in iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.
- Chicken soup. Poultry is among the best sources of protein for those who get heartburn, says Koufman. And chicken soup is among one of the best dishes for the soul. "It's the ultimate comfort food," says Kaufman. "I always make enough to share with a neighbor." Bonus: Research suggests that chicken soup helps boost immunity.
- 6. Popcorn. Popcorn is very heartburn-friendly, according to Kaufman. What's more, you can dress up the snacks with different flavors. A recipe in Koufman's book adds grated Parmesan cheese and finely chopped dill. She also recommends simply sprinkling with sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth. Bonus: Popcorn is a popular, low-fat snack that's also high in fiber.
- Lobster rolls. Lobster rolls served at restaurants tend to have more mayonnaise than meat, so make them at home instead. Koufman has a healthy take on this classic. Start with about two to three pounds of lobster meat. Dice it very fine, than add some fresh dill and chopped celery. Then add a tablespoon of mayonnaise. Mix it; then serve in a hot dog roll, alongside a tossed salad. Bonus: Fish, including shellfish, do not cause acid reflux—well, as long as they're not fried!
- Pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is not acidic and is easy to digest. It's also loaded with vitamin A and fiber making it a healthy choice—as long as you keep the whipped cream at a minimum! Bonus: Ginger, a common ingredient in pumpkin pie, is a proven anti-inflammatory and remedy for gastrointestinal conditions.
- Macaroni and cheese. This classic comfort food is a godsend to pasta lovers who have to avoid traditional tomato sauces. If you're lactose-intolerant, give the dish a makeover by using less cheese, or a lactose-free variety. Love Bolognese sauce from your favorite Italian restaurant? Add lean ground beef to macaroni and cheese. "For most people, it's not the meat, it's the tomato sauce that really gets them," says Pandolfino.
Bonus: Milk's basic nature helps to neutralize stomach acid.
John E. Pandolfino, MD, Gastroenterology, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago
Jamie Koufman, M.D., founder and director of the voice Institute of New York
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