The sour burp, stomachache and chest pain that can be symptoms of a lifetime of inappropriate food choices are striking children at increasing rates. Even preschool kids are experiencing acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a more severe form of reflux.
“Over the past two years I've been seeing much more of this on a daily basis than I was seeing in prior years,” said Kristi L. King, a registered dietitian and nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Poor diet and lifestyle habits are major contributors to acid reflux, experts say.
These include skipping breakfast, snacking on high-fat foods, and consuming too many soft drinks, too many calories, too much food late at night and getting too little physical activity.
“Kids are really suffering from the way their diets have changed. I see patients who think a hamburger, french fries and a pop are a meal,” said Dr. Wendy Anderson-Willis, a pediatrician with Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Fried foods and soft drinks hurt the stomach, said Anderson-Willis, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents can take steps to help their children reduce or eliminate acid reflux, according to the experts.
Skipping breakfast and having a large dinner, especially one late at night, can take a toll on the digestive system.
“I suggest having the same amount of food, but smaller meals so the stomach doesn't overfill, leading to acid reflux. Smaller, frequent meals are important in the treatment of GERD,” Anderson-Willis said.
Begin with the morning meal.
Children might complain that their stomachs hurt when they wake up, so they don't want to eat. Eating breakfast can help by balancing out acidity, according to Anderson-Willis.
Avoid high-fat foods — such as bacon or doughnuts — that cause acid. Fruit is part of breakfast, but offer less acidic apples or bananas.
At lunch and dinner make half the plate vegetables, filling in with whole grains and lean protein, said King, senior dietitian and clinical instructor for the Department of Pediatrics, Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.
Meal timing is important, too.
Though families might have activity-packed evenings, they should avoid late-night dinners.
Children should stop eating two hours before they lie down, according to Anderson-Willis.
Instead of an after-dinner retreat to the sofa for an evening of television, the experts suggest a family walk.
Being sedentary can lead to slower digestion, which in turn can lead to acid reflux, according to Anderson-Willis.
Fortunately, children can recover.
“If you can get your child on a healthier path, gastric reflux symptoms can be nipped in the bud,” King said.
But the whole family has to be involved, buying more nutritious ingredients, eating at sensible times and getting more physical activity.
“It's not just for the child. It's for the parents as well. The parents will also benefit,” King said.
Some foods can trigger acid reflux; others can alleviate it.
Fried foods, soft drinks, coffee, caffeinated energy drinks and highly acidic foods such as tomato sauce (though not raw tomatoes), can lead to acid reflux, health experts say.
Instead focus on vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and green beans, which are low in acid.
Experiment with ingredients to see what helps.
“Some patients do have relief from some foods. A lot of times it's trial and error to see what works. There are not a lot of studies for children and GERD,” King said. “No particular food is a go-to cure-all.”