A majority of Americans have stomach problems, so why can’t we quit spicy food?


In other “How is everyody doing?” news this month, beverage brand Truly Hard Seltzer announced an “ultra-limited edition” Hot Wing Sauce flavored edition of their product. “Truly has you covered with their weirdest, wildest, ‘who’s ready for some damn football’ -est flavor to date,” Give Them Beer announced at the time. And this is where I admit, yeah, I’m out.

Call me a wimp. Call me vanilla. My gastrointestinal tract and I can bear your scorn. I am someone who finds plain seltzer, all by itself, too aggressive. You want to dare to me to add alcohol? And hot sauce? My head would never leave the toilet.

The fact that Truly Hard’s hot wing flavor sold out instantly makes it clear there’s a public demand for “weird, wild” products. In perhaps not unrelated news, our stomachs are killing us.

A 2018 study of over 71,000 individuals in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that “61% reported having had ≥1 GI symptom in the past week. The most commonly reported symptoms were heartburn/reflux (30.9%), abdominal pain (24.8%), bloating (20.6%), diarrhea (20.2%), and constipation (19.7%)” More recently, a 2023 survey from the health company MDVIP and market research firm Ipsos found that “Two-thirds of adults experience recurrent digestive symptoms like gas, bloating and abdominal pain.” The survey also revealed that “75% of women experience gastrointestinal symptoms at least a few times a month compared to 57% of men,” and that “Younger Americans experience more digestive woes, with 73% of adults ages 18-44 having symptoms at least a few times a month” with one-third of young adults saying that “Gut issues affect their self-esteem.” I know this is an unpopular stance but hear me out here. Toast. White rice. Regular old water. Just think about it.

“In perhaps not unrelated news, our stomachs are killing us.”

The human palate is highly individualized thing, informed by our genetics and environment. A recent feature in The Dish on Science noted that “Some people are born with fewer receptors for capsaicin, which is the compound that makes hot foods taste and feel hot.” People with fewer of these receptors tend to have a higher tolerance for heat, while those with more feel the burn more easily. Our tastes also respond to exposure and associations. As food scientist and nutritionist Sophie Medlin told Delish in 2020, “People that grow up eating a lot of chilli, or have a lot of spicy food all through their life, will be more able to tolerate it than those who eat a more western diet.” So if, like me, you grew up on boiled potatoes and seem to be made entirely of capsaicin, you may just have to settle for being down at the lower end of the Scoville scale.

Of course, spice isn’t the only or even primary culprit for our collective stomach problems. We skip meals and rush through choking down the ones we do guiltily consume. When we do eat, we gorge on way too much at a time, thanks to supersized portions, and we eat a whole lot of fast food and processed food. And then we chase it all down with some Maalox. 

I’ve spent most of my life self-identifying as an adventurous eater. Maybe that’s why it’s taken so long to recognize my limits, and to reconsider my embarrassment about uttering the word “medium” when the waiter asks how I’d like my guac. And I wonder if part of the reason women suffer stomach problems more than men is a certain unspoken pressure to keep up with the big boys in the flamin’ hot arena of life. 

Lately, however, I’ve been taking inspiration from my Gen Z daughters, who have had enough GI tract drama in their lives to proceed with caution toward any product that has a police car alarm emoji on the package. Proud kindred of the hot girls with IBS, yassified Lactaid chewer demographic, they are completely unfazed about picking the onions and jalapeños out of everything. I think they’re my role models. 

But embracing a milder diet requires a mind shift. After all, an enthusiasm for anything that goes scorched earth from your throat to your colon is considered a sign of fortitude and fun. (There are no popular YouTube channels called “Bland Ones.”) Yet you know what’s also fun? Not having debilitating cramps.

“You don’t need to eat super spicy food to enjoy your meals,” says Dr. Thanu Jey, medical director and founder at the healthcare company MediBrace. It helps not to think of dietary changes as limitations but the chance to experiment with different flavors. “Trying different tastes keeps eating fun and stops cravings,” he says. “Use mushrooms, citrus, and herbs to add taste without the burn. Try new marinades, dressings, and salsas.” Jey also recommends that you “Eat healthy fats. Foods like avocados, nuts, and fatty fish are good for you and protect your stomach.” And while it might seem like a no-brainer, he advises to “Pay attention to your stomach. If spicy, oily, or acidic foods cause problems, stop eating them.”

Just stopping isn’t always easy, though. As the memory of what went down the last time you just had to flex at that barbecue fades, the temptation to try out that new collab with those brands that throw around words like “death,” “extreme” and “guaranteed gastritis” begins to assert itself again. Stay strong, my comrades.

Don’t just confine habit changes to dialing back on aggravating foods, either. Lisa Andrews, a dietician with Health Insiders — and reflux sufferer herself — mentions that alcohol and excess caffeine can also aggravate stomach acid. She also advises to pay attention to how your food is prepared. “High-fat, fried foods also can aggravate stomach pain and upset because they stick around longer and take longer to digest,” she says. “Go with baked, broiled or grilled meats when possible and stick with lean cuts of meat, fish, or seafood.” And if you’re still grappling with stomach issues, she suggests “Keeping a food diary may help you discover which foods impact your stomach pain. Write down what you ate and when,” she says, “and what your reaction was within the past day.

“Enjoy the adventure of milder flavors.”

I’m really fine with not needing to optimize every morsel I consume for maximum nutrition and health. I eat as much for pleasure as anything else, and sometimes I’ll take a little discomfort for a great culinary experience. But I also want to confine my spiciness to my personality, and normalize eating things that don’t hurt me. “Your stomach and taste buds will be happier with gentler foods,” says Dr. Thanu Jey, “Enjoy the adventure of milder flavors.” And, adds, “Remember, tasty doesn’t have to be painful.”

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