Acid reflux occurs when the contents of your stomach come up into your esophagus. This is because your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) relaxes and allows stomach acid to enter your esophagus. Your doctor may diagnose you with gastroesophageal disease (GERD) if this happens more than twice a week.
Several food-related factors might explain why acid reflux occurs, such as:
- the position of your body after eating
- the amount of food you eat during a single meal
- the type of foods you eat
You can control each of these factors by making smart decisions about how and what you eat. Modifying your body position to an upright posture after a meal and eating smaller portions can help prevent reflux. However, knowing which foods to avoid can be a bit more confusing.
Part of the issue is that there is still some controversy in the medical community over which foods actually cause reflux symptoms. Despite this lack of consensus, many researchers agree that certain types of foods and beverages are best avoided to prevent indigestion, heartburn, and other symptoms of acid reflux. The following food, drinks, and ingredients may relax the LES and encourage additional esophagus-irritating acid.
The way that you prepare your food can increase the likelihood of developing reflux. Here are some preparations to avoid.
High-fat Meals and Fried Foods
Fatty foods generally decrease pressure on the LES and delay stomach emptying, boosting your risk for reflux symptoms. Try to decrease your total fat intake by avoiding these high-fat foods:
- fried onion rings
- French fries
- whole milk
- high-fat cuts of red meat (such as marbled sirloin or prime rib)
- ice cream
- sour cream
- potato chips
- creamy salad dressings
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) includes spicy foods on its list of foods that can worsen reflux symptoms. Some studies have suggested that spicy foods, such as those containing chili spice, can cause abdominal pain and burning symptoms in functional gastrointestinal disorders.
Yet, a 2010 review in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility showed that repeated exposure to capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili, doesn’t produce the same discomfort as it does when eaten only occasionally. In fact, researchers noted that eating spicy foods like chili may actually improve GERD symptoms in those who eat them on a regular basis. Consider your individual tolerance level for spice when planning meals.
Fruits and Vegetables
While fruits and vegetables are generally an excellent and necessary part of your diet, certain types have been shown to exacerbate GERD symptoms. The following fruits and veggies are common offenders:
- citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, and pineapple
- tomatoes and tomato-based foods (such as tomato sauce, salsa, chili, and pizza sauce)
- garlic and onions
A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that raw onions significantly increased the number of reflux and heartburn episodes in people who suffer regularly from heartburn. However, raw onions didn’t increase these measures in non-heartburn-sufferers. Some doctors suggest that cooked onions may be easier for GERD patients to tolerate. If in doubt, discuss your tolerance level with your doctor.
Several common drinks also can be problematic for GERD sufferers, including:
- coffee and tea
- carbonated beverages
- citrus and tomato juices
Coffee, with or without caffeine, may promote reflux symptoms, though research on both coffee and tea has been contradictory in this area. You should only consume the beverages on this list if you tolerate them well.
Other Foods, Medicines, and Supplements
A number of other foods and medicines can cause poor function of the LES, leading to GERD symptoms, for example:
- mint (peppermint or spearmint)
- iron and potassium supplements
- aspirin and other pain relievers
- alpha blockers
- calcium channel blockers
You may be tempted to stop taking a medication or supplement if you suspect that it’s increasing your acid reflux or heartburn. Always talk to your doctor before stopping your current medications. Your doctor can help you develop smart eating habits to avoid your GERD triggers.