Researchers say reflux patients on plant-based diets fared better than others who ate different types of food.

There are numerous drugs available on the market for treating acid reflux symptoms, but people can get the same medical benefits by simply adhering to a diet.

These are the findings presented by researchers from The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research at Northwell Health and New York Medical College.

Their research was published earlier this month in JAMA Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery.

In the study, patients with laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) were divided into two groups.

One group was treated with proton pump inhibitors (PPI), a traditional reflux medication.

The second group followed a plant-based Mediterranean-style diet along with alkaline water.

Ultimately, patients who followed the Mediterranean type of diet saw a marked improvement.

Better, in fact, than those who were given medications.

In all, 62 percent of patients in the diet group saw a six-point reduction in their Reflux Symptom Index. Just 54 percent of patients in the PPI group saw the same reduction.

According to researchers, these results show that plant-based diets can be more effective than drugs when it comes to treating certain conditions.

Dr. Craig H. Zalvan, the lead study author and chief of otolaryngology and medical director of the Institute for Voice and Swallowing Disorders at Northwell Health’s Phelps Hospital and researcher at the Feinstein Institute, described the genesis of this study to Healthline.

“I specifically work with voice and swallowing and cough disorders, so my practice gets a lot of referrals from the entire region,” he said. “At that time, I’d diagnose patients with LPR and of course do what everybody did, put them on PPI. Frankly, I eventually became a little disillusioned with the fact that all I’m doing is giving people these pills, and it just seemed like it was just addressing the symptoms and not looking at the problem itself.”

Zalvan said that he researched various chronic diseases, finding that diet was typically a major factor.

“I formulated my thoughts that reflux is just another chronic disease, and if all these other diseases respond famously well to diet, why wouldn’t reflux?” he explained. “Reflux is a diet-based disease, so that’s how I started my thinking that I’ve got to do something a little different. A few years ago, I started switching my patients over to a diet-based approach, and I noticed that they did really well.”

While there is existing evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet is beneficial for people with both LPR and gastroesophageal acid reflux (GERD), Zalvan said he was even surprised by the results of the study.

“I was thinking that these drugs are very powerful suppressors of acid reflux disease, and you’d expect that they should do better than diet alone,” he said. “So I wasn’t expecting the results for [the plant-based group] to be so great.”

The same group of researchers is now seeking a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to do a larger prospective study that will expand the research.

This proposed study will look into not just medication versus diet, but also the different parameters involved as well as the way people’s microbiomes respond to different diets.

Ultimately, Zalvan said, they’d like to find better ways to diagnose and treat reflux.

“Of course, my hypothesis is that a diet-based approach is going to work time and time again,” he said.

These findings tie into a long-standing issue in the United States — an overdependence on prescription drugs.

Zalvan points out that Americans spend billions of dollars on reflux medications every year, adding that drugs can have undesired side effects.

These side effects are often treated with even more drugs, and the cycle continues.

“It’s part of the American way of thinking that if you have a problem, you need a pill,” said Zalvan. “If you look at the literature on chronic disease, you realize that instead of putting people on PPI and statins for their cholesterol and medications for their high sugars, all doctors really should be moving toward a more plant-based approach to help cure a lot of these chronic diseases that are out there.”

“I really want to stress that these results clearly suggest that a diet-based approach is as good, if not better, than drugs,” Zalvan said, “and once the proper diagnosis is made — and that’s an important point, because LPR isn’t the easiest thing to diagnose — that doctors should at least try a diet-based approach before committing a patient to being on a medication.”