Nothing says summer like picnics and barbecues. But if you're one of the nearly 120 million Americans who suffer from heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a spread at a pool party or backyard barbecue can present a minefield of potential triggers for debilitating pain.
Heartburn, that uncomfortable burning sensation in the chest, results when acids from your stomach back up into a weakened part of your lower esophagus (the tube that runs from your mouth to your belly). Irritable bowel syndrome occurs when your large intestine (bowel) does not function properly, resulting in painful cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea and/or constipation.
Fortunately, you don't have to spend summer gatherings doubled over in pain. Here, some tips to help you enjoy your next picnic or barbecue:
Know your trigger foods -- then avoid them
Every stomach is different. If you're not sure what ticks off your tummy, start a food diary, advises Kim Galeaz, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant based in Indianapolis. Write down everything you eat and drink, plus any symptoms you have and when they occur. Then see if you can discern a pattern. "You might discover that half of a hot dog doesn't cause a problem but a whole one does," says Galeaz.
Pick your beverages wisely
Cold beer, iced tea, lemonade and soda -- what summer party is complete without them? But alcohol and caffeine (found in many sodas, coffee and tea) are common culprits for both heartburn and IBS. Carbonation can also contribute to bloating in IBS sufferers, and the high acid content in lemonade (and other citrus juices) can irritate the esophagus, making it problematic for people with heartburn.
Fat is not your friend
Fried and fatty foods, such as greasy burgers, fried chicken or salads dripping in oil slow down your digestive system. The more time food sits in your stomach, the more likely it is that acid will back up, causing heartburn pain. Likewise, high-fat foods can cause cramping and abdominal pain in some IBS sufferers. To avoid tummy trouble, "Go for lean cuts of pork and beef," says Galeaz. When making burgers, buy meat with the lowest fat percentage you can find. Grilled chicken breast and fish kabobs with vegetables are other safe options, she adds.
Stick with salads
Lettuce and potato salads are safe choices, especially when made with low-fat, reduced-fat or fat-free dressing or mayonnaise. While vinegar can be problematic if you're prone to heartburn, you may find you can enjoy cider or rice vinegars, which tend to be milder than other vinegars, advises Pat Baird, registered dietitian and board member of the National Heartburn Alliance. You also may want to skip tomatoes, which can trigger heartburn.
Broccoli and beans: a mixed blessing
Broccoli, cauliflower, beans and cabbage are nutritional powerhouses that provide plenty of good-for-you fiber. Fiber is often recommended for IBS sufferers since it can ease symptoms in some people, particularly those prone to constipation. However, these foods can also cause gas, which may trigger bloating and cramping. If this happens, your body may be able to adjust as long as you start small and add these foods gradually to your diet, a little at a time. If you find you can tolerate these foods, don't forget to use low-fat dressing or mayo when making coleslaw or bean salad.
Spicy foods -- especially those featuring black pepper, red pepper flakes, Tabasco sauce and fresh garlic -- can be a problem if you have heartburn. But most heartburn sufferers can eat mustard, and some can handle small amounts of ketchup, notes Baird. If you love garlic and onions, consider garlic and onion powders or dried onion pieces, which tend to be more heartburn-friendly than the fresh kind, she adds.
Screaming for ice cream?
Dairy products can be a problem for people with IBS if they have difficulty digesting lactose, the sugar found in milk. If this is the case for you, steer clear of cheeseburgers, ice cream and the like. If a summer without ice cream seems bleak to you, try sorbet, which is usually milk-free.
Don't load your plate
Whether it's heartburn or IBS that gives you trouble, "the volume that you eat is a big factor," says Galeaz. An overstuffed stomach is more likely to result in acid reflux for heartburn sufferers, and cramping and diarrhea for people with IBS. So eat moderately and slowly to give your tummy time to digest.
While spicy barbecues and greasy cheeseburgers may seem like a nightmare if you have a sensitive stomach, the great thing about summer gatherings is that they're usually casual, active affairs. Instead of sitting down to a large formal dinner, you can "snack" at the buffet table in between throws of a frisbee or dips in the pool. The key is figuring out what ticks off your individual stomach. One person's trigger food is another person's happy indulgence. Once you know what you can and cannot eat, you can create your own smart strategies for a pain-free summer.
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Nicole Gregoryis a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for numerous publications, including Weight Watchers magazine, Vegetarian Times, Viv, Fit Pregnancy and many others.