Your meal was delicious — great food, fun drinks. But then all of a sudden stomach pain strikes, and you're not sure why. What could it mean?
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There are many reasons why stomach pain may develop after eating, explains Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, food and nutrition consultant, former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of The Everything Mediterranean Diet Book. "Digestion requires several chemicals to aid the process, and there are several places where problems can occur," she notes.
Chew Your Food!
It's possible for stomach pain to develop as a result of something as simple as failing to chew your food properly. "If we fail to chew food completely, we can get indigestion as large pieces of food go down the esophagus," Diekman warns.
According to the Mayo Clinic, failing to chew properly can give rise to difficulty swallowing, known as dysphagia. Dysphagia is often painful and can leave you feeling as though food is stuck in your throat, chest or breastbone (sternum) area. It can also trigger heartburn, stomach acid back-up and even food regurgitation. While uncomfortable, an occasional bout of dysphagia is not a serious cause for concern. But persistent dysphagia is serious and requires medical treatment.
Dysphagia can also be triggered by another common bad habit: Eating too fast. Gulping your food can also lead to belching, says Diekman, if you swallow air while chowing down.
Excess Stomach Acid — A Recipe for Trouble
Yet another potentially painful problem stems from acid production in the stomach. "Acid is needed to digest protein," notes Diekman, "but if we overproduce or produce when no food is in the stomach, we get pain." You'll typically feel it in your midsection.
When stomach pain is accompanied by a burning sensation in the abdomen, chest or throat, you may have heartburn. As the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) explains, gastroesophageal reflux (or GER) occurs when the food in your stomach makes its way back up into the esophagus. That's what causes heartburn. Getting rid of heartburn is not always easy. Avoiding certain foods — such as chocolate, coffee, peppermint, greasy or spicy meals, tomatoes and alcohol — helps some people. Losing excess weight also brings relief, as does passing on fatty foods, states the NIDDK.
Here's another simple step to take: Avoid eating large meals. Smaller meals can also lower the risk for another problem — when the sphincter muscle at the top of the stomach responds to a large intake of food by letting food go back up the esophagus, triggering pain, says Diekman.
When Lifestyle Changes Aren’t Enough
Sometimes changing personal habits doesn't work. And if GER, and the pain and discomfort it produces, persists, it can develop into a full-blown condition known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
In that case, in addition to lifestyle changes, managing GERD may call for medications, from simple antacids to relieve symptoms to H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors designed to stop acid production, according to NIDDK. But it's important to not self-treat. If you experience heartburn, pain or any other symptoms on a regular basis, see your doctor for a diagnosis and a treatment plan.
Fiber: Friend or Foe?
A fiber-rich diet offers a host of digestive benefits. Found mostly in healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes, fiber can help relieve constipation and lower the risk for diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, according to the Mayo Clinic. But suddenly eating too much too fast can boomerang.
"Fiber, like fat, is tricky to digest," says Diekman. "So overconsumption can cause upper abdomen discomfort." That can translate to gas, bloating and stomach cramps. The remedy: Introduce fiber into your diet slowly over a few weeks, allowing for the bacteria in your stomach to adjust to its new digestive task. And make sure to drink a lot of water because fiber is most beneficial and least likely to cause stomach pain when ingested along with fluids.
- Connie Diekman, M.Ed, RD, food and nutrition consultant, former president, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, author, Everything Mediterranean Diet Book
- Mayo Clinic: "Dysphagia," "Nutrition & Healthy Eating"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Acid Reflux (GER & GERD) in Adults"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for GER & GERD"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Treatment for GER & GERD"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.