Mom daughter cookingDear Dr. Debbie,

My 15-year-old was advised to follow a GERD diet to reduce heartburn. We’ve cut down on fried foods, but some of the other do’s and don’ts are harder to get used to. Specifically difficult to avoid are chocolate, mint and whole milk. Since I do the grocery shopping, I’m probably the one who needs to work harder to change habits. Any suggestions?

This Not That

Don’t miss last week’s column New guidelines for preventing peanut allergies — Good Parenting

Dear TNT,

It’s not easy to change food habits. And the family shopper is the one who needs to change his or her buying habits so that the rest of the family only has good choices in the kitchen. As with food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances, you will have to be very conscious of the list of do’s and don’ts as you read labels and seek out new foods.

This will get easier each time you reroute your habitual path through the grocery store, and perhaps change which stores you come to depend on for having what your family needs. Even though other members of the household aren’t suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — a condition that can be the cause of heartburn — there’s no harm from shifting everyone to this diet as a show of support.

Introduce alternative foods slowly

Some of the forbidden foods have palatable substitutes. For example, carob can substitute for chocolate in baking and in candies. Postum and Pero are powdered grain products used to make a hot drink that is a reasonable substitute for hot chocolate or coffee. As an after-meal breath freshener, fresh parsley can take the place of mint. A variety of non-dairy milks are made from coconut, almond, soy and brown rice. Soft drinks with carbonation are sometimes a culprit, so add fruit juice (not orange juice) to minimize the effect until you can do without soda altogether.

The key may be to alternate or combine the good and the forbidden in a gradual process as the new flavors and textures become familiar. The trouble with any “extreme” dieting, in which you must never again eat certain foods, is that, psychologically, it feels impossible. Therefore try to make some changes slowly. Your GERD patient may find that eating only a tiny bit of a forbidden food at a time causes no harm.

Embark on a culinary adventure

Fifteen is old enough to share in the shopping and cooking for the family. Challenge your child to choose three new fruits (while avoiding citrus) and three new vegetables (avoiding tomato) during a joint shopping venture.

Often a reluctant eater is more likely to enjoy a dish that he or she planned and prepared. If your family has relied on fatty meats as a dinner staple, look into fish and poultry dishes that comply with the new diet. Ground turkey works well as a burger or a meatloaf.

Get creative with condiments and sauces that satisfy the doctor as well as the tongue. A blender or food processor can whip up ingredients to look like former favorites, such as a beet and yam based ketchup or a coconut milk based creamy salad dressing.

Ease symptoms in other ways

While the focus to prevent heartburn is often on dietary changes, WebMD has other recommendations beyond food choices to reduce symptoms.

  • Wear loose clothing.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Wait 2 hours after eating to exercise.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Eat several smaller meals rather than a large one.
  • Wait 2-3 hours after eating before lying down.
  • If discomfort occurs overnight, put a wedge under the mattress or use a few boards under the bed to raise the head.

Empower your teen

Try to empower your teen with the responsibility for improving this condition. The internet is a good place to find food lists, recipes and other recommendations from fellow sufferers and medical research. Then have your teen pay attention to what works.

As with many health conditions, it will be important for your child to reflect on how each of these changes is helping. For example, some patients notice they have more burping and more reflux when they chew gum while others report that chewing gum reduces reflux. Certain acidic fruits — tart strawberries, fresh pineapple, kiwi, etc. — could be more problematic than watered down orange juice.

Acknowledge that the changes you are making will be temporarily stressful for everyone. The reward for this inconvenience, however, will be your teen’s relief from painful symptoms.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

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