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World: U.S. Chef Launches 'Heart Burn' Campaign

  • Robert Lyle

Washington, 7 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Nathalie Dupree is one of America's better known television chefs and cookbook authors, appearing on more than 300 television cooking shows over the past 20 years in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and producing eight best-selling cookbooks.

But there was something almost no one knew about this well-traveled chef -- she couldn't eat many of the foods she prepared so appetizingly. Nathalie Dupree suffered from what millions around the world commonly refer to as heart burn or acid indigestion. It didn't just happen once in awhile either, she says. It was frequent and almost debilitating:

Dupree said: "I went about a year I think without getting hardly any sleep. I would put two or three pillows up behind my head so as to keep myself propped up. I would get laryngitis and so forth and didn't realize it is all connected."

Over lunch recently with our correspondent in Washington, Dupree said she, like so many others, blamed the food. 'Don't eat spicy foods.' 'Avoid strongly season dishes.' 'Eat a bland diet.'

So, as she prepared her mouth-watering foods for international audiences, Dupree herself couldn't eat most of them. Still she suffered from this acid indigestion also known as reflux:

Dupree said: "So, you're lying in bed at night and you have reflux. You think it's the food. Well, it's not, probably. I mean, obviously everyone is liable to get heartburn at some point in their life because they're eating late at night, but that's normal heart burn. What I'm talking about is a chronic condition where it happens over and over again, two or more days a week."

Dupree didn't dare tell anyone about her problem. Dupree said: "Well, of course I was quiet about it for awhile because I was embarrassed because I thought people would laugh -- which they do and did -- and say 'It's your food.' And so I think it took me a couple of years to get really straightened out. I took over-the-counter medications -- which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't -- but it turns out it really wasn't working because it doesn't do the same thing."

Dupree's doctor diagnosed her as having Gastro-Esophagael Reflux Disease, referred to as GERD. It is a disease of harsh stomach acids backing up into the food tube or esophagus. It causes a frequent and persistent heartburn, a rising burning sensation behind the breastbone. It is not caused by foods although some greasy or highly spiced foods can aggravate the condition.

It is estimated that over eight percent of the world's population has GERD -- 21 million people in the U.S. alone -- yet it is little-known. Because it is easily treatable, Dupree recently launched an education campaign with a 20-city tour across the United States to make GERD more publicly recognized and understood.

Dupree takes a daily tablet of a prescription drug made by Sweden's Astra pharmaceuticals called Losec in Europe and Prilosec in the U.S. which allows her to once again eat any food she wants without any discomfort. She says the condition itself often develops with age when the sphincter muscle, which closes off the esophagus from the stomach, loses its tone and, like sagging biceps, doesn't do its job any more.

Dupree says some remedies people use to try to stop the heart burn, such as a mint tea, can actually make the condition worse because it further relaxes the sphincter muscle.

Dupree said: "In many countries, as you know, mint tea is a very usual thing. So people are blaming spicy food they had when it was really the mint tea that was exacerbating the problem."

Dupree advises anyone with acid indigestion more than once or twice a week to consult a doctor and find out if it's more than simple heart burn. Left untreated, GERD can cause serious damage to the esophagus and has been linked to asthma, laryngitis and dental erosion.

In the meantime, Dupree is back eating whatever she wants -- from some spicy Thai cuisine for a television special on Australia that is due to be broadcast across Europe soon, to the seriously hot Harissa she makes for a north African dinner in her latest cookbook, 'Comfortable Entertaining.'