Acid reflux occurs when there is acid backflow from the stomach into the esophagus. This happens when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is weakened or damaged. Normally the LES should close to prevent food in the stomach from moving up into the esophagus.
The foods you eat affect the amount of acid your stomach produces. So eating the right kinds of food is key to controlling acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a severe, chronic form of acid reflux.
Heartburn is a common symptom of acid reflux and GERD. You may develop a burning sensation in your stomach or chest after eating a full meal or certain foods.
GERD can also cause vomiting or regurgitation as acid moves into your esophagus. Other symptoms include:
- dry cough
- sore throat
- burping or hiccups
- difficulty swallowing
- lump in the throat
Many people with GERD find that certain foods trigger their symptoms. No single diet can prevent all symptoms of GERD, and food triggers are different for everyone. To identify your individual triggers, keep a food diary and track the following:
- what foods you eat
- what time of day you eat
- what symptoms you experience
Keep the diary for at least a week. It’s helpful to track your foods for a longer period if your diet varies. You’ll use the diary to identify specific foods and drinks that affect your GERD.
Also, the following diet and nutrition guide is a starting point to plan your meals. Use this guide in conjunction with your food journal and recommendations from your doctor. The goal is to minimize and control your symptoms.
Although doctors debate which foods actually cause reflux symptoms, certain foods have been shown to cause problems for many people with the disease. To control your symptoms, you could start by eliminating the following foods from your diet.
Fried and fatty foods can cause the LES to relax, allowing more stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. These foods also delay stomach emptying. Eating high-fat foods puts you at greater risk for reflux symptoms, so reducing your total daily fat intake can help.
The following foods have a high fat content. Avoid these or eat them sparingly:
- french fries and onion rings
- full-fat dairy products such as butter, whole milk, regular cheese, and sour cream
- fatty or fried cuts of beef, pork, or lamb
- bacon fat, ham fat, and lard
- high-fat desserts or snacks such as ice cream and potato chips
- cream sauces, gravies, and creamy salad dressings
Tomatoes and citrus fruit
Fruits and vegetables are important to a healthy diet. But certain fruits can cause or worsen GERD symptoms, especially highly acidic fruits. If you have frequent acid reflux, you should reduce or eliminate your intake of the following foods:
- tomato sauce (or foods where tomato sauce or paste is a main ingredient, such as pizza or chili)
Chocolate contains an ingredient called methylxanthine. It has been shown to relax the smooth muscle in the LES and increase reflux.
Garlic, onions, and spicy foods
Spicy and tangy foods, like onions and garlic, trigger heartburn symptoms in many people.
These foods won’t trigger reflux in everyone. But if you eat a lot of onions or garlic, make sure to track your meals carefully in your diary. Some of these foods, along with spicy foods may bother you more than others.
No diet has been proven to prevent GERD. However, certain foods may ease symptoms in some people.
Talk to your doctor if you have questions about whether certain foods should be included in your diet. Foods that help improve acid reflux for one person may be problematic for someone else.
Working with your doctor can also help you develop a diet to control or lessen your symptoms.
Research shows that increased fiber intake, specifically in the form of fruits and vegetables, may protect against a number of digestive issues, including GERD. But scientists are not yet certain how fiber prevents GERD symptoms.
Increasing your dietary fiber is generally a good idea. In addition to helping with GERD symptoms, fiber also reduces the risk of:
- high cholesterol
- uncontrolled blood sugar
- hemorrhoids and other bowel problems
There are specific foods you can incorporate into your diet to manage symptoms of acid reflux. Here are seven options:
- Green leafy vegetables, along with other vegetables, are naturally low in fat and sugar and help reduce stomach acid. Options include green beans, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, lettuce, potatoes, and cucumbers.
- Ginger has natural anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s a natural treatment for heartburn and other gastrointestinal problems. You can add grated or sliced ginger root to recipes or smoothies, or drink ginger tea to ease symptoms.
- Oatmeal is a breakfast favorite, a whole grain, and an excellent source of fiber. Oatmeal can absorb acid in the stomach and reduce symptoms of reflux. Other fiber options include whole grain breads and whole grain rice.
- Noncitrus fruits include melons, bananas, apples, and pears.
- Lean meats like grilled, broiled, baked, and poached chicken, turkey, fish, and seafood are low-fat and reduce symptoms of acid reflux.
- Egg whites are an option, but ignore the yolks as they are high in fat and may trigger reflux symptoms.
- Healthier fats include avocados, walnuts, flaxseed, olive oil, sesame oil, and sunflower oil. Reduce your intake of saturated fats and trans fats, and replace them with these healthier unsaturated fats.
In addition to controlling reflux symptoms with diet and nutrition, you can manage symptoms with lifestyle changes. For example:
- take antacids and other medications that reduce acid production
- chew gum that isn’t peppermint or spearmint flavored
- avoid alcohol
- remain upright for at least two hours after eating
- don't eat 3 to 4 hours before bed
- stop smoking
- don’t overeat
- raise the head of your bed 4 to 6 inches to reduce reflux symptoms while sleeping
People with GERD can usually manage their symptoms with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. Talk to your doctor if lifestyle changes and medications don’t improve symptoms.
Your doctor can recommend prescription medications, or in extreme cases, surgery.