Gastroesophageal reflux is the most common gastrointestinal issue adults deal with on a daily basis. It can be a nuisance to live with – especially if it becomes a chronic condition – but a few simple dietary changes can go a long way in limiting symptoms. This blog will cover foods to avoid and foods that are safe to eat for people with acid reflux.
Acid reflux vs. heartburn
When dealing with stomach and esophageal problems, most people assume heartburn, acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are all the same. After all, many people use them interchangeably.
However, there is a distinct difference. In simple terms, acid reflux (also called gastroesophageal reflux or GER) is a process in which stomach contents back up into your esophagus. GERD is a more severe and chronic condition caused by acid reflux. Heartburn is both a symptom of acid reflux and GERD.
The anatomy of your upper digestive tract includes the esophagus, a smooth, muscular tube that connects to the stomach. When you swallow, a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter opens to allow food into the stomach before closing.
In people with acid reflux, this valve relaxes and doesn’t close all the way and allows stomach acids and enzymes to flow back into the esophagus. In addition to heartburn, acid reflux can cause regurgitation of food into your mouth that creates a bitter taste. You may also experience nausea or pain while swallowing.
Despite the name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. Instead, is discomfort felt in your chest behind your sternum (breastbone) that can move up to your throat. The burning feeling can last a few minutes or a few hours and may become worse when you lay down or bend over. It may also intensify after eating late at night.
Most cases of heartburn are mild – some people don’t even feel it – and can be treated with over-the-counter medications or diet modifications.
acid reflux diet
Certains foods can cause the esophageal sphincter to relax, thus allowing food contents and digestive juices back into your esophageal and throat. Other foods produce more stomach acid that is more likely to flow back into the esophagus. Staying away from certain foods can lower your risk of having acid reflux episodes, including heartburn.
Regardless of food type, avoid eating meals or snacks late in the evening. This prevents food from sitting in your stomach when you go to sleep – a full belly can cause stomach contents to back up into your esophagus when you lay down in bed.
Foods to avoid with acid reflux
Eat these foods in moderation, as they can all trigger acid reflux and worsen your symptoms.
- Alcohol: Drinking alcohol both stimulates stomach acids and also relaxes the esophageal sphincter.
- Allium vegetables (onions, garlic, shallots): Alliums contain fermentable fibers, meaning they react with gut bacteria during the digestion process to produce more stomach acids.
- caffeine: Although it is a stimulant, your morning cup of coffee actually relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter.
- Carbonated beverages: The bubbles (carbon dioxide) in carbonated drinks increased gastric pressure and can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to stay open.
- Citrus fruits: The acid in lemons, limes and oranges produce more stomach acid that can lead to reflux.
- Chocolate: Not only does chocolate contain caffeine, it also has saturated fat that lingers in your stomach.
- Fatty and processed foods: They may taste good, but fatty foods stay in your stomach longer, increasing the likelihood stomach acid backs up into the esophagus.
- peppermint: This popular plant used in teas and candy relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter.
- Spicy foods: Capacisan, a chemical compound in peppers, can slow down digestion, causing food to sit in your stomach longer.
- Tomato-based products: Fresh tomatoes aren’t nearly as triggering, but ketchup, canned tomatoes and other products produce more stomach acid.
- vinegars: The acidic nature of vinegar produces more stomach acid that can back up into the esophagus.
Foods that help acid reflux
While some foods are problematic for acid reflux, other foods can help reduce or improve your symptoms.
Whole grains, fruits and vegetables have fiber that can make you feel fuller, which limits the amount of food in your stomach.
- Whole grains: Oats and brown rice are good choices for grains as they both help you feel satisfied for longer and also help absorb stomach acid.
- Vegetables: Low-acid vegetables such as root vegetables, cruciferous vegetables and green beans are all good choices.
- fruit: Bananas, apples and raspberries are high in pectin, a type of soluble fiber that dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance that helps food travel more easily through the digestive tract.
Foods can either be acidic (low on the pH scale) or alkaline (high on the pH scale). In theory, acidic foods are more likely to trigger acid reflux. Animal-based foods, such as meat and dairy, are acidic.
On the other hand, alkaline foods can help counteract stomach acids that lead to acid reflux. Examples of alkaline foods include bananas, cantaloupe, melon, apples and cauliflower.
Foods with high water content
Foods with high water contents can help dilute stomach acid and ease acid reflux. Leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, are made up primarily of water as are celery, cucumbers and zucchini. In fact, celery, iceberg lettuce and cucumbers contain 95 percent water. For fruit options, watermelon and strawberries are made up of 91 percent water.
Yogurt coats the lining of the esophagus, acting as a soothing agent in acid reflux patients who suffer from heartburn. Probiotics in yogurt can also help with digestion.
What to drink for acid reflux
While dairy can trigger acid reflux mainly due to the prevalence of saturated fats, drinking low-fat milk may actually be beneficial for people with acid reflux. Low-fat milk works the same way low-fat yogurt does on the stomach to help provide heartburn relief. Dairy-free milks – soy milk, cashew milk, oat milk or almond milk – are all good options, too.
When in doubt, drink water to stay hydrated and avoid carbonated drinks.
When to see a gastroenterologist for acid reflux
Occasional heartburn from acid reflux isn’t likely a cause for concern, but you should contact a gastroenterologist if your symptoms occur more than twice a week and become more than just an annoyance. Your acid reflux may be a sign of something more serious, such as GERD. Left untreated, GERD can damage your esophagus and cause such issues as esophagitis (inflamed esophagus), Barrett’s esophagus or even increase your risk of cancer.
To schedule an appointment with one of our GI specialists, visit our doctor search page for a provider near you.