Heartburn is a painful burning sensation experienced in the chest area just above the stomach due to the reflux of stomach acid in the oesophagus.
The reflux is caused due to the relaxation of the lower oesophageal sphincter (LES) which in turn is triggered usually by poor diet, unhealthy lifestyle, obesity, smoking, certain medications or any other physiological condition.
Heartburn is mostly easily manageable by simple therapies and natural remedies but its negligence can lead to a more complex ailment called gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Eating Less but Frequently Helps in Heartburn?
It might not be wrong to say that generally, people tend to eat big three times a day instead of small meals several times.
Also, a missed meal is compensated by eating twice the actual amount of food consumed that creates havoc in the stomach.
The key to reducing the occurrence of heartburn is to eat frequently but in lesser volumes. This means that eating should be stopped at the point of the meal when the stomach is comfortable enough and not full.
This would lead to hunger sooner which can be then swiped off by eating once more, but again in small amounts.
Eating good food and at proper times is the most important factor that helps prevent heartburns. But of the two, eating habits govern the symptoms most.
Eating less food but frequently helps ameliorate acid refluxes to a greater extent than eating healthy.
According to research done in Germany, the amount of acid reflux induced by a meal largely depends on the volume of the meal and less on the content.
Conversely, eating fatty foods in lesser amounts but more frequently are less likely to cause heartburns than eating healthy food in large volumes a couple of times a day.
However, this does not mean that a healthy diet is not important. Both the factors- volume and calorie size of the meal affect the occurrence of heartburn and thus have to be taken care of.
1. Why eating less but more often helps?
It is always a good idea to eat less and frequently not just to maintain health but to avoid acid reflux.
There are several important reasons which rule in favour of this fact and are scientifically proven.
At first, not eating big on 3 standard meals and switching to small non-standard frequent meals could prove difficult but eventually, it comes into a habit and the health benefits start becoming visible.
Large meals that fill up the stomach tend to put a negative pressure on the lower oesophageal sphincter muscle which forces it to open and let the acid creep up in the oesophagus causing heartburn.
Smaller meals even if high in calories tend to pass down the intestine faster because of proper exposure of the food to the gastric juices and faster digestion.
It is always better that the food spends as little time in the stomach as possible because shorter the retention time of food in the stomach, faster it will pass down the intestines.
If the food stays longer in the stomach, it exerts pressure on the sphincter, leading it to open up and let the acid flow backwards that causes heartburn.
The retention time depends on digestion that occurs in the stomach and if digestion is faster, it will spend less time there.
Faster digestion in turn depends on meal size and smaller meal volume gets digested faster.
The regular tradition of eating three meals a day increases gorging of food. Three meals a day are set at times that create a large gap between two consecutive meals.
This makes hunger to kick in aggressively and increases the tendency to gorge the food that leads to overeating.
Small meals spread out with a gap of a couple of hours on an average keeps the stomach comfortable and helps avoid overeating that leads to pressurizing the stomach and opening up of the sphincter muscle.
Eating less helps reduce the chances of fatigue and avoid the feeling of lying down just after meals.
Overeating causes the stomach to put in extra energy to digest the food that leads to the urge to lie down.
This in turn increases the chances of heartburn because during lying down, the gravitational action works against passage of food down the gut and let the acid creep up.
Eating frequently keeps the blood glucose levels up to the mark and this reduces the need to overeat during a particular meal.
Reduction in the meal size helps keep the body active even after eating and prevent heartburns.
The traditional schedule of eating three meals a day involves the time gap between lunch and dinner to be a longer one as compared to breakfast and lunch.
This increases the hunger, reduces the energy and tempts the brain to eat more in order to satisfy the increased hunger.
This is particularly bad for heartburn because acid reflux more often occurs at night and eating a large dinner meal can make heartburn worse.
To avoid this, eating smaller meals frequently would let the last meal of the day to be lighter, enhancing digestion and alleviating heartburn .
2. Frequency of the Smaller Meals
There has not been a definitive research on the frequency of the smaller meals to be taken in a day.
It is however important to keep in mind that the sole objective of frequent meals is to help avoid groping the food in one go leading to overeating.
So it would be apt to say that the meals should be frequent enough to swipe away the uncomfortable feeling that starts in the stomach when the stomach feels hungry and the meals should be sized enough to make the stomach comfortable again, and not full.
The general recommended the frequency of eating smaller meals is six times a day.
It should be divided with a gap of approximately 2 to 3 hours keeping in mind that specifically, the last meal of the day should not be taken after a long gap.
The usual meal course followed is by first taking a light breakfast, then a midmorning snack after a couple of hours.
This is followed by a light lunch and then a midday or evening snack.
Not long after, an extremely light dinner and an occasional night time snack completes the daily routine of healthy eating.
It is important to note that both meal size and calorific value of the same matters. For people who have severe heartburn, high calorie meals should be avoided even if taken in small amounts.
The meals should be started with salads and soups to reduce the consumption of fatty foods taken after.
Also, the mid meal snacks should not contain fried foods such as chips, cold drinks, cheesy and fatty foods etc, which are hard to digest and are more likely to cause acid reflux .
3. Eating Less at Night
Heartburn is more frequent and problematic at night time. Eating more just before sleeping can trigger a high amount of acid reflux leading to uncomfortable and interrupted sleep.
This in turn causes stress, anxiety, fatigue and other physiological and psychological disorders. A heavy meal at night puts pressure on the sphincter muscle increasing the probability of reflux.
This is added upon by lying down where gravitational force can’t pull the food down and the acid creeps up.
The reflux is followed by acidity, burning sensation in chest, nausea and headache that interrupts sleep.
The key to avoid night time heartburn is taking lighter meals and walking for a few minutes before lying down .
To avoid overeating, it is important to note the extent of hunger. One stage is when the person has not had anything for more than five hours, the blood sugar is low and there is a feeling of being famished.
This leads to overeating and thus should be avoided. Another condition is when the person is absolutely stuffed and not one bite more could be eaten.
This again leads to heartburn which is why it should be stayed away from.
It is always better to stay in between these two extreme conditions of hunger at night time. The idea is simple.
Waiting till starvation is not recommended. Eating till the feeling of having eaten barely enough is what always works to avoid heartburn.
There should always be some room left for more food so that after a couple of hours, hunger strikes again and a little bit can be eaten.
This should specially be practiced before dinner so that at dinner time, the appetite is reduced and the person ends up eating less automatically, avoiding heartburn.
Other benefits of eating less but more often
Here are some other benefits when you eat less but more often -
- Eating frequently keeps replenishing sugar levels because eating more often provides sufficient amounts of carbohydrates each time the body has just started to lower down blood sugar levels. Also, smaller meals prevent extra sugar from entering the blood keeping excess blood sugar levels in check.
- It prevents obesity because it helps keep the stomach stay comfortable. This gradually reduces the appetite and provides the body with sufficient energy at appropriate times .
- It helps reduce the fatigue after overeating because large meals require tremendous amounts of energy to digest the food which causes fatigue and the urge to sleep. This hampers work and activeness of the body apart from causing heartburn frequently.
- It helps burning extra calories because even the digestion process requires energy. Eating more often keeps the digestion active and burns calories to keep the weight in check.
- It helps prevent overeating because the constant supply of sugar to the blood reduces the need to eat more and gradually the urge to overeat goes away.
Tricks to help prevent overeating and having meals frequently
Some quick tips -
- To prevent the consumption of more food, the meal should be started with salads, green leafy vegetables and soups. This fills up the stomach so there is little room left for eating other fatty foods. This also helps keep the body healthy and avoid heartburn.
- Drinking plenty of water just before meals fills up the stomach and helps reduce the appetite which leads to eating less. The lesser amount of food thus consumed gets digested easily and makes the feeling of hunger strike back earlier which increases the frequency of eating.
- Avoid giving a large gap between meals. This also helps reduce the appetite since the stomach is already half full of the last meal consumed.
- For mid meal snacks, eat fruits that provide enough carbohydrates to keep the blood glucose levels appropriate and also reduce hunger. They also are tasty, get digested easily and prevent obesity .
To avoid heartburn, it is important to manage and maintain a healthy diet which not only includes staying away from fatty foods but also eating frequently with a reduced meal size.
Eating less and more often has tremendous benefits on the body overall, including prevention of the symptoms of heartburn because it helps reduce the meal size, since large meals tend to put a pressure on the sphincter muscle leading to acid reflux.
Eating frequently helps reduce the appetite and thus the meal size gradually maintaining the levels of blood sugar and keeping the need to eat more in check.
It is thus advised to manage the diet accordingly so as to keep it healthy and frequent, avoiding heartburn and other common problems such as obesity as well.