Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive disorder that causes stomach acid to flow back up into the esophagus. This is known as acid reflux. The reflux occurs as a result of a malfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is the ring of muscles between the esophagus and stomach. Normally, these muscles open to allow food and liquid into the stomach, and then close. In people with GERD, however, the muscles are weak or relax irregularly, allowing stomach contents and acid to creep up into the esophagus and throat.

Acid reflux often causes discomfort and irritation in the esophagus, leading to a sour or bitter taste in the throat and mouth. This is frequently accompanied by heartburn, or a burning sensation in the chest. Some people also experience nausea, coughing, sore throat, dry mouth, and other uncomfortable symptoms.

The prolonged acid reflux associated with GERD can cause inflammation in the esophagus, leading to a condition called esophagitis. Esophagitis may make it difficult or painful to swallow. When left untreated, GERD can also damage your esophageal lining and cause esophageal ulcers and irritation. This may result in bleeding, narrowing of the esophagus, or Barrett’s esophagus, a condition in which the cells lining your esophagus change to ones resembling your intestine. It can be associated with esophageal cancer.

While there are many medical treatments for GERD, changing your diet is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to manage symptoms. It can also help prevent acid reflux from happening in the first place.

What Makes a GERD-Friendly Diet

Certain foods are harder to digest and can increase the amount of acid in the stomach, leading to acid reflux and other GERD symptoms. The types of food that trigger these symptoms can vary from person to person, but common culprits include alcohol, high-fat foods, and spicy foods. It’s important to avoid all foods and drinks that are known to cause discomfort. It also helps to incorporate foods that can ease or prevent GERD symptoms.

What to Avoid Entirely

Avoiding large meals is one of the easiest ways to lower the chances of experiencing acid reflux and heartburn. This means eating five to six small meals a day instead of two or three large ones. It’s also a good idea to avoid eating at least three hours before bedtime.

Although GERD triggers vary in each person, during your meals, make sure to avoid the following:

  • soda and other carbonated beverages
  • spicy foods
  • fried foods
  • mints
  • garlic
  • onions

These foods and beverages are known to aggravate GERD symptoms.

What to Limit

Certain foods and drinks are OK to consume in moderation, but they may cause increased discomfort in some people more than others. Here are some foods and beverages that may trigger GERD symptoms and are therefore best consumed in small amounts:

Beverages

  • mint tea
  • citrus juices
  • tomato-based drinks
  • regular and decaf coffee
  • alcoholic beverages
  • whole milk or chocolate milk

Carbohydrates

  • doughnuts
  • croissants
  • french fries
  • potato chips
  • tortilla chips
  • pastas prepared with creamy sauces or pesto

Fruits and Vegetables

  • tomatoes
  • fried vegetables
  • vegetables prepared with cream sauces
  • citrus fruits, such as oranges, lemons, and grapefruit

Protein

  • fried meat
  • fried chicken
  • fried fish
  • sausage
  • pepperoni
  • bacon
  • hot dogs

Fats

  • gravies
  • butter
  • margarine
  • cream

Desserts

  • chocolate
  • ice cream 
  • high-fat cakes, pies, and cookies

What to Include

It may seem as though there are numerous delicious foods that you need to avoid or eat in small amounts. However, there are plenty of GERD-friendly foods that you can eat every day. The goal is to create a diet that consists of a variety of healthful foods, such lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and fruits and vegetables. Try incorporating the following foods and drinks:

Beverages

  • nonfat or low-fat milk
  • non-mint herbal teas
  • non-citrus juices

Carbohydrates

  • rice
  • plain pasta
  • oatmeal
  • whole-grain bread
  • low-fat cereals
  • low-fat muffins
  • crackers
  • tortillas
  • pancakes
  • waffles
  • boiled potatoes

Fruits and Vegetables

  • all vegetables with little added fat or sauces
  • non-citrus fruits, such as bananas, melons, and apples

Protein

  • lean meat, such as chicken and fish
  • low-fat cheese
  • low-fat yogurt
  • beans
  • peas
  • lentils
  • tofu
  • eggs
  • peanut butter

Healthier Fats

  • nuts and seeds
  • low-fat salad dressings
  • low-fat mayonnaise
  • small amounts of olive, sesame, vegetable, and sunflower oils

Desserts

  • angel food cake
  • sponge cake
  • low-fat cookies
  • low-fat ice cream
  • sherbet
  • frozen yogurt
  • hard candy

Eating right for GERD doesn’t mean you have to stop eating all of your favorite foods. Making a few simple changes to your current diet may be enough to prevent or ease GERD symptoms. If your symptoms don't improve with diet and other lifestyle changes, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can perform various tests to evaluate the severity of your condition and determine the best course of treatment.

You Asked, We Answered

  • Aside from improving my eating habits, what else can I do to relieve or prevent GERD symptoms?
  • Eliminating known GERD triggers from your diet can help improve your symptoms. Avoiding eating late meals, elevating the head of the bed, ensuring you do not eat while lying down, or not lying down for up to 3 hours after eating can also be helpful. If you are overweight, weight loss is recommended. Avoid smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol, as they both reduce lower esophageal sphincter pressure and can worsen GERD symptoms. Certain over-the-counter medications, such as antacids, histamine 2 receptor antagonists, and proton pump inhibitors can also help with resolution of symptoms. Talk to your healthcare provider about which medications are best for you. 

    - Healthline Medical Team