Breaking up with your favorite foods – Harvard Health

Heartburn and indigestion are not the hallmarks of a good relationship.

They say that breaking up is hard to do, and that takes on new meaning when you’ve had a love affair with certain foods. But sometimes our bodies can no longer tolerate our favorites, forcing us to say goodbye to everything from onions, beans, and jalapeos to yogurt and marinara sauce. “Anyone over 30 knows that our body doesn’t always work the way it once did, and that gets worse as we get older. The upper and lower digestive tract seem most susceptible to the changes of aging,” says Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Suspicious sweethearts

The naturally occurring sugars known as FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) can become harder to digest in older age. These include sugars found in dairy products, wheat, rye, onions, garlic, legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans), honey, pistachios, cashews, asparagus, and artichokes, among other foods. Some fruits (including mangos, pears, and peaches) contain FODMAPs, as do drinks with fructose or certain artificial sweeteners. Dr. Staller says we don’t always know what makes a person develop sensitivity to particular FODMAPs. We do know that eating FODMAPs can result in cramping, diarrhea, bloating, and gas.

Missing from the relationship

Some people have difficulty digesting dairy products because their bodies don’t produce enough lactase — the enzyme necessary to break down lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in dairy foods. A small number of people are born lactose intolerant; in most other cases, lactase production declines over time, so that people lose their ability to digest lactose as they get older. “For reasons we don’t fully understand, the genes that control the ability to make lactase can be switched off as we age,” Dr. Staller says.

Burned by love

Peppers, tomato sauces, and many other foods (such as citrus, chocolate, peppermint, and fatty and fried foods) can worsen heartburn caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, the tube connecting the mouth and stomach, usually because the ringlike muscles that prevent backflow stop working properly. GERD can cause a burning feeling in the chest, a sour taste in the mouth, difficulty swallowing, a sore throat, or coughing.

You deserve better

Rather than suffer the consequences of an unhappy digestive tract, stop fighting and move on. There are plenty of fish in the sea — or in this case, options for new foods to love.

Replacing dairy products is easiest. You can find lactose-free milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products that have had the offending sugar removed. You can also try plant-based “milk” products, such as almond, cashew, oat, rice, and hemp milks; yogurts; and even ice cream. Soy and lactose-free milks are good sources of calcium and protein.

“But you will have to make sure grain and nut milk products are fortified,” advises registered dietitian Kathy McManus, the director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “And watch out for added sugars. Many of these milks are flavored, and some of them have almost as much sugar as soda. Go for the unsweetened kind.”

Spice up your food life

There are many alternatives that may satisfy your need for spicy food without triggering heartburn. “Ground ginger, horseradish, wasabi, cinnamon, hot mustard — those kinds of things may bring a little spice or heat without all that pepper or red sauce,” McManus suggests. “But introduce foods slowly, to see how they’re tolerated, and back off if symptoms return.”

Where have you “bean” all my life?

Beans and other legumes are a major source of plant-based protein for many people. If those FODMAPs don’t agree with you, consider protein-rich firm tofu (made from soybeans, with FODMAPs removed). If it’s the bean texture you’ll miss, try rice (ideally brown, not white), quinoa, polenta, and gluten-free breads or pastas, which are all FODMAP-free.

In fact, there are replacement possibilities for all FODMAP foods. Instead of blackberries, try blueberries; ditch onions for fennel bulbs or the greens of scallions; swap out pistachios or cashews for almonds or peanuts; and pass up peaches in favor of papayas. For more information, check out the Harvard Medical School Guide Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (

Reuniting with an old flame

Can’t stay away from your favorite foods? Take heart. “You might not get symptoms if you eat smaller amounts,” Dr. Staller says.

Other tips:

  • “You can reduce the heat in fiery dishes by adding a dollop of dairy — such as sour cream — or increasing the amount of other ingredients, such as vegetables, to dilute the heat,” McManus suggests.
  • Tamp down the heat in peppers before cooking by rinsing them, removing the seeds and ribs, roasting them, and removing the skin.
  • Rinse canned beans before cooking them to reduce the amount of gas-producing sugars.
  • Use an enzyme supplement with lactase to help you digest dairy; or use Beano, a natural enzyme product that helps sensitive guts digest oligosaccharides.

And remember: healthy, long-term relationships — including with food — take work. With a little effort, you can enjoy many more years of symptom-free food bliss.

Image: Wavebreakmedia/Getty Images

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