Optimizing Nutrition for Older Adults with GERD: Strategies for Symptom Management

Optimizing Nutrition for Older Adults with GERD: Strategies for Symptom Management

Published on Thursday, February 22, 2024 by Emily Hamm

Understanding GERD Risk Factors in Older Adults

Due to various factors, older adults face a heightened risk of complications linked to Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), necessitating vigilant management to alleviate symptoms and stave off potential complications. Diet and lifestyle modifications are pivotal components of GERD symptom management, forming the frontline defense against its progression. In this article, we explore effective strategies to optimize nutrition for older adults grappling with GERD, aiming to empower them with actionable insights for symptom relief and improved quality of life.

Identifying Risk Factors for GERD in Older Adults

  • Over the age of 60
  • Comorbidity medication use that results in the weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter (nitrates, calcium channel blockers, benzodiazepines, anticholinergic agents, and antidepressants)
  • Presence of hiatal hernia
  • Delayed gastric emptying- or decreased GI motility
  • Reduced saliva production
  • Diseases affecting cognitive function and mobility (Parkinson’s disease, cerebrovascular disease, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease and diabetes)
  • Increased sedentary time and lying in a reclined or flat position for more extended periods

Strategies to Manage GERD and Optimize Nutrition:

#1- Identify Trigger Foods and Limitations

Reflux, a common digestive issue, can often be exacerbated by certain trigger foods. These culprits include coffee, fried foods, spicy dishes, full-fat dairy products, acidic items like tomatoes and citrus fruits, tea, carbonated drinks, chocolate, peppermint, peppers, and onions. Recognizing that some foods may provoke symptoms more than others is essential. Consider maintaining a food diary for 1-2 weeks to pinpoint potential triggers and detect dietary patterns. 

Once trigger foods are identified, minimizing or avoiding them whenever possible is advisable. While significantly reducing food intake isn't typically recommended for older adults due to concerns about malnutrition and dietary restrictions associated with conditions like diabetes and kidney disease, severe triggers for GERD symptoms should be avoided to enhance quality of life and prevent further complications.

#2- Incorporating GERD-Friendly Foods to Optimize Nutrition

Despite restricting certain foods that may trigger GERD symptoms, nourishing your body with a balanced diet is essential. Focus on consuming lean proteins such as skinless chicken breast, fresh fish, lean ground beef, eggs, low-fat cheese, and low-fat Greek yogurt. Opt for low-acid fruits like bananas, apples, grapes, and berries, as well as cooked vegetables to promote easier digestion—avoid salads and rough vegetables if you also experience delayed gastric emptying. Incorporate fiber-rich whole grains as tolerated, and consider soothing your stomach with ginger tea if you're feeling nauseated. 

Regarding beverages, stick to flat options like water, low-acidic juices like apple juice, and low-fat milk while avoiding carbonated and caffeinated drinks. Opt for baked and broiled cooking methods, using small amounts of olive oil instead of heavy oils. If you experience swallowing difficulty or dysphagia, opt for softer textured foods and consult with your healthcare provider promptly, as swallowing issues can lead to severe complications such as aspiration pneumonia.

#3- Optimize Nutrient Intake

Routine lab work to check your iron, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and calcium levels is crucial for individuals managing reflux with medications like proton pump inhibitors or H-2 antagonists. These medications can lead to deficiencies, putting you at risk for anemia and osteoporosis. To maintain optimal levels of these nutrients, consuming food sources rich in them is essential.  

For vitamin D, consider fortified low-fat dairy products, eggs, salmon, and low-sugar cereals. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, sardines, canned salmon, and beans. Iron-rich options encompass lean beef, beef liver, chicken, fish, and iron-fortified breakfast cereals. Lastly, focus on lean beef, chicken, and eggs for vitamin B. If you are deficient in any of these nutrients, consider supplementing with a vitamin/mineral supplement to support your overall health.

#4- Portion Control and Mindful Eating

It's essential to be mindful of meal size and frequency to alleviate reflux symptoms. Larger meals can exacerbate reflux, so sticking to appropriate portions, as outlined by MyPlate guidelines, or opting for smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day can help. Additionally, eating slowly and taking at least 30 minutes to finish a meal can aid in regulating fullness and digestion, preventing overfilling of the stomach. Properly chewing food is paramount, as digestion begins in the mouth; chewing each bite at least 20 times ensures thorough breakdown and easier digestion, reducing the likelihood of reflux. 

Avoiding straws is advisable, as they can trap air in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to discomfort and exacerbating reflux. Instead, opt for sipping from an open glass to minimize air intake and prevent hiccups. Limiting fluid intake during meals is also recommended, as it can increase the likelihood of stomach contents splashing back up into the esophagus; if necessary, take small sips while eating or choose moist foods with sauce or gravy to aid in swallowing without excessive fluid consumption.

#5- Meal Timing

Meal timing plays a crucial role in managing reflux symptoms. Consider your daily habits and routines when planning meals to allow your body sufficient time for digestion and to prevent reflux. It's advisable to avoid lying down for at least 2-3 hours after eating, as reclining too soon can increase reflux symptoms. If reclining is necessary, remain elevated to at least a 45-degree angle. Opt for larger meals earlier or during the middle of the day, reserving smaller snacks for later in the evening, especially if you tend to stay up later. This approach can help minimize reflux symptoms and promote better digestion.

#6- Hydration Strategies

Consume beverages between meals rather than during or immediately after to manage reflux effectively. Aim to refrain from drinking fluids 30 minutes before and after meals to allow your body time to adjust to digestion and prevent excessive mixing of liquids with solid foods, which can exacerbate reflux symptoms. Additionally, ensure adequate hydration by consuming at least 64 ounces of hydrating fluids daily from non-carbonated and non-caffeinated sources such as water, low-fat milk, and low-acid juices. These choices can help maintain hydration levels without worsening reflux symptoms.

#7- Exercise and Physical Activity

Light physical activity for at least 30 minutes after meals can aid digestion and alleviate reflux symptoms. Simple activities like walking around your home, either indoors or outdoors, can be beneficial. For those who are confined to a chair or bed, consider performing chair exercises to promote movement and aid digestion. There are numerous resources available online with chair exercise ideas to suit various mobility levels. Incorporating these activities into your post-meal routine can support digestion and minimize reflux discomfort.

#8- Quitting Smoking and Limiting Alcohol Intake

Both excessive alcohol consumption and smoking are significant triggers for reflux. It's crucial to discuss strategies with your healthcare provider to reduce or eliminate these habits effectively. By seeking guidance and support, you can work towards minimizing reflux symptoms and improving overall health and well-being.

#9- Discuss Medication Use with Healthcare Provider

If you're on medication that increases your risk of developing or exacerbating GERD symptoms, it's essential to have a conversation with your healthcare provider. Explore alternative treatment options and discuss whether there are alternative medications available. Some medications, such as nitrates, calcium channel blockers, benzodiazepines, anticholinergic agents, and antidepressants, may contribute to GERD symptoms. By collaborating with your healthcare provider, you can find the best approach to manage your conditions while minimizing the risk of reflux.

Seeking Professional Guidance and Support

If you are finding challenges in managing GERD, please talk with a registered dietitian to help identify food sources or lifestyle patterns that directly affect you. It is extremely important if you suspect you have GERD or a loved one has GERD that you seek medical attention to help manage symptoms. Uncontrolled GERD can lead to complications such as trouble swallowing, painful swallowing, aspiration of gastric acids/juices, pulmonary complications, chronic coughing, bleeding, strictures (narrowing of the esophagus), and even cancer. We want you to feel and be in CONTROL of managing your health!

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  3. Learn how to eat healthy with myplate. MyPlate. (n.d.). https://www.myplate.gov/ 
  4. Working on Wellness Foundation: Chair exercise video: Live and YouTube: United States. foundation. (n.d.). https://www.workingonwellnessfoundation.org/ 

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