If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, you’re probably familiar with acid reflux. For those who are not familiar with what acid reflux is and its wrath that wreaks havoc on your body, here is a rundown of what this bothersome, digestion-related disorder entails.
What are the symptoms of acid reflux?
A big symptom of acid reflux is a burning sensation, otherwise referred to as heartburn, which occurs when acid creeps back up the esophagus from the stomach. That’s why people grasp at their chest—the pain can literally take their breath away.
Since acid is flowing backward, aka up the esophagus, swallowing can be difficult and there could be the feeling that there’s a limp in the throat. But the symptoms don’t stop there—other parts of the body take the heat, too.
There are lots of factors that go into a good night’s sleep, and feeling like your chest is burning isn’t one. Nighttime acid reflux can disrupt sleep, make asthma worse, and may cause coughing, according to the Mayo Clinic. So consuming things that can help prevent these symptoms is key for making sure it doesn’t mess up slumber, which then leads to other adverse effects.
How you can relieve acid reflux symptoms by eating or avoiding certain foods.
To help you minimize those uncomfortable acid reflux symptoms, we spoke with registered dietitians Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD, Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, and author of The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner, and Dr. Reezwana Chowdhury, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in gastroenterology and hepatology at Johns Hopkins, to compile a list of foods that either cause, alleviate, and/or prevent acid reflux from brewing.
The foods that cause heartburn and that you should avoid when you have acid reflux have a few things in common. Foods that sit in the stomach longer (hello, fatty and heavy foods!) can worsen some of the symptoms listed above, says Dr. Chowdhry. We’ll start with ones to avoid, and then mention quite a few that can help.
14 foods that cause acid reflux.
The foods that cause heartburn and that you should avoid when you have acid reflux have a few things in common. Many take a longer time to digest and can sit in the stomach, leading to acid traveling up the esophagus, Dr. Chowdhury says. But others are simply just really acidic!
Regardless of whether you are consuming healthy fats or, well, not-so-healthy fats, you put yourself at risk for experiencing some digestive discomfort. Fried and fatty foods cause the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) to relax and, ultimately, not carry out its duties properly. The LES is a bundle of muscles that separates the esophagus from the stomach. More specifically, it is supposed to seal the bottom of the esophagus in order to stop food from traveling back up after it deposits in your stomach.
“Greasy and fatty foods can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to not tighten properly, which leads to stomach acid traveling back up the esophagus,” says Rizzo.
Foods like French fries, fried chicken, and funnel cake actually immobilize your LES. “Fried foods also take a long time to digest, so they sit in the stomach for a long time and the reflux symptoms last for a while,” she says.
Eating high to full-fat dairy products can help you feel fuller, longer, but unfortunately, those who suffer from acid reflux struggle to reap the benefits of these items without feeling like their esophagus is eroding.
Again, it has to do with the high-fat content. There are milk alternatives to cow’s milk that have non-existent levels of lactose (the sugar in dairy that can cause gas, bloating, and congestion). Milk with a lower content of lactose may also place less pressure on that tender LES.
It’s also likely that the reflux is caused by an intolerance or sensitivity to dairy. “Reflux can be a symptom of a food sensitivity, which is a non-allergic immune response that triggers inflammation,” says Sass. “For many, nixing dairy can eliminate reflux.”
Even heart-healthy dark chocolate causes the acid to flood back upstream. The reason? Methylxanthines. These are naturally-occurring substances that act on the central nervous system and cause the smooth muscle tissue in the LES to relax.
Similar to fatty and fried foods, cacao is just as capable of weakening the LES. The two types of methylxanthines in chocolate are caffeine and theobromine, stimulants that enable us to enjoy the “feel good” vibes you get when you nibble on a square or two.
What’s that you say? You’re already opening your second can of diet soda? Just say no. Soda and other carbonated drinks stir up some serious esophageal distress. The bubbles in carbonation expand inside the stomach, causing a lot of extra pressure to reside just beneath your fragile LES muscles.
“In addition to triggering reflux, carbonated drinks can cause bloating and burping,” says Sass. “Trading your bubbly drink for flat water infused with something like cucumber, ginger, or lemon can help your overall digestive system feel and function better.”
That morning cup of joe may just be sending your esophagus into a burning tizzy; not a great way to start the day. “Although you may love your cup of joe, the acidic nature of the drink can exacerbate reflux symptoms,” says Rizzo. “If you notice that you experience reflux after your cup of joe, you may be better off switching to green tea.”
And that’s not all—even a little bit of caffeine can be enough to cause heartburn symptoms to flare up, Dr. Chowdhry says.
“Where’s the beef?” If you suffer from acid reflux, you should know that even healthfully-raised, grass-fed beef contains a good amount of fat. And fatty foods, as you now know, cause that LES to become lax as they sit in your stomach, waiting to be digested. Just one 3-ounce serving of 85% lean ground beef contains 5 grams of saturated fat.
So, to put this into perspective: If you eat roughly 2,000 calories a day, this will cost 25% of your daily intake! It’s best to limit this meat as much as possible in order to keep your symptoms at bay.
When you’re going out for a night with friends or a date night, you might want to splurge by pairing a beer or a glass of wine (or two) with dinner. Well, think twice before you pop open that second bottle, because alcohol has been shown to slow the rate at which your food snakes through your digestive system. This means your food is not being broken down as rapidly as it should, and it sits in your stomach, which increases your likelihood of enduring an acid reflux episode, Dr. Chowdhury explains.
This one is a bit of a no-brainer. When you suffer from reflux, your esophagus already feels like it’s on fire, and the last thing you want is to eat something that ignites the flames any further. Rizzo says that spicy foods can trigger acid reflux symptoms in many people for primarily two reasons.
“First, for those who suffer from reflux, spicy foods can inflame an already irritated digestive tract. Second, they may also take longer to digest, and food sitting in the stomach for a long time can cause acid reflux,” Rizzo explains.
“Peanut butter jelly time” is no longer a time of utter enjoyment for those who battle with acid reflux. Jelly, along with jam, ranks at the top of extremely acid-forming foods, weighing in with a pH of 5.5. In lieu of spreading that sugar-laden jelly across your peanut butter, throw in some slices of an alkalizing fruit such as bananas and/or strawberries; the pH of the sandwich will be less acidic with an alkaline fruit!
Strawberries, too, can be quite acid-producing, Dr. Chowdhury says. So skipping the strawberries—in jam or berry form—can keep acid reflux at bay.
Despite tomatoes’ stellar lycopene content, this food is actually encumbered with citric and malic acid. This is detrimental to those who undergo bouts of acid reflux because these two acids can cause the stomach to produce too much gastric acid.
Gastric acid is the chemical responsible for breaking down the food, and when the quantity becomes too great in size, it has nowhere to go except for up into the esophagus. So, go easy on the tomato-based pasta sauce the next time you whip up spaghetti, and reach for EVOO instead!
Peppermint acts as an amazing agent in subduing the effects of certain disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and may soothe an upset stomach. But it can, unfortunately, heighten the effects of acid reflux, Dr. Chowdhury notes.
“For those who suffer from acid reflux, peppermint tea can aggravate the digestive tract. It’s best to avoid anything mint flavored if you notice it causes you reflux or heartburn,” says Rizzo. The problem isn’t that it doesn’t soothe the lining of the digestive tract. It’s actually that these refreshing leaves are actually too good at soothing the muscles, specifically the LES. You may just want to skip on that post-dinner peppermint.
That morning dose of scrambled eggs is bothersome to your LES. Not to mention, eggs are among one of the big eight food allergens, meaning many people have an intolerance to them, which could cause acid reflux as a side effect. If you are a vegetarian with acid reflux, check out protein shake recipes for additional ways to meet your daily protein intake without the help of meat!
Attention all peanut butter addicts, this PSA is for you. Peanuts are one of the higher-in-fat nuts, which means they land your LES in a hazy space. For comparison, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter clocks in at roughly 3.3 grams of saturated fat, whereas 2 tablespoons of almond butter clocks in at only 1.4 grams.
The difference doesn’t seem very big here, but if you plug these numbers into a full week’s worth (2 tablespoons every day), it calculates to an extra 13.3 grams of saturated fat per week. No wonder why your chest is in distress! If you are a diehard PB fan and refuse to give it up, at least read up on our exclusive guide to the healthiest peanut butter to see which ones are the lowest in saturated fat.
Mom always advised against eating too much sugar to avoid inciting a stomachache. Well, she was right, because that is exactly what fructose does to those with acid reflux, and it makes up half of the ingredients in table sugar. Sugars that aren’t readily absorbed in the bloodstream tend to linger, and they become nutrients for unhealthy bacteria. This causes havoc in your stomach, which then can easily proceed to cause havoc in your esophagus.
For tips on scaling back, here are 20 Ways to End Sugar Cravings For Good, According to Nutritionists.
The best foods for acid reflux.
Enough talk about feeling the burn! According to a Nutrition in Clinical Practice review, ginger is one of the many herbal remedies you can eat to avoid aggravating your esophagus and calm acid reflux. For starters, ginger is notorious for its anti-inflammatory properties and is often used to treat gastrointestinal conditions.
Interestingly enough, the component in ginger that helps relieve symptoms of acid reflux is melatonin. You probably know melatonin as the sleepytime chemical our bodies produce. When levels of melatonin are too low, stomach acid becomes more prevalent. Not only does melatonin reduce gastric acid, but it also prevents the loosening or weakening of the LES. Dice, slice, or shave this fresh root into a smoothie or tea!
By now, you should already know that oatmeal is a superfood way to start your morning. These whole grains won’t cause acidity to stir; in fact, it absorbs it. If you were to throw in cranberries (which are pretty acidic), it would actually soak up the acidity and neutralize the dish.
“One of the reasons oat milk has become so popular is because in addition to not being a common allergen, oats are anti-inflammatory and tend to ease digestion,” Sass says. “You can also add rolled oats to a smoothie, or make dairy-free overnight oats a breakfast or snack staple.”
For recipe ideas, here are the best oatmeal recipes.
If you weren’t already a connoisseur of almond butter, then you will be now! As stated earlier, this nut butter contains a bit less saturated fat, so your LES will not be so quick to go lazy when it passes through.
“In addition to its good fat and—bonus—plant protein, almond butter provides more magnesium, vitamin E, and calcium than peanut butter,” says Sass. “It’s a great choice as a dip for fresh fruit or veggies, or blended into smoothies. You can even use it in savory recipes to thicken soups, or as the base for gingery nut butter sauce.”
Not only does 1 cup of raw spinach fulfill a remarkable 181% of your daily vitamin K needs, but it’s also one of the most alkaline foods in its raw state. Alkaline foods are essential to consume because they balance out the pH in our bodies; they work to neutralize the acidity. Make it a point to consume spinach in its raw state—it actually becomes a bit acidic once cooked.
Here’s a recipe for Spanish-Style Pizza with Romesco Sauce, Spinach, and Artichoke Hearts—proving this acid-reflux helper can also be delicious!
This fruit actually has an alkalizing effect on your body. More clearly, it reduces the acidity in your system. Your LES and your kidneys will both thank you for this one, because watermelon is chock-full of the substance that your body needs to survive: H2O. “Watermelon is incredibly anti-inflammatory. The pigment that gives it its beautiful hue is tied to brain, eye, heart, and bone health,” says Sass.
Did you do a double-take when you saw lentils? We understand. Many people think this high fiber food is notorious for causing bloating, gas, and even heartburn. However, it’s the way that they are prepared that often causes these symptoms to escalate. Most times people like to douse their lentils in spices and seasonings, two major culprits of acid reflux, to add some flavor to the naturally tasteless legume.
“Lentils are a true superfood. This member of the pulse family, which also includes beans, peas, and chickpeas, are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, plant protein, and fiber,” Sass says. “They’re also naturally gluten-free and support steady, even energy.”
So enjoy ’em plain or at least go easy on the seasonings to reap their benefits. And here are healthy lentil recipes you should try.
All hail kale! This leafy green is not only one of the best foods for a toned body, but it also ranks right up there with spinach on the alkaline scale. Not to mention, kale provides a wealth of other benefits to the body and is easy to add into smoothies in the mornings, but also salads, sandwiches, or wraps later in the day when nighttime acid reflux can strike.
“There are so many reasons to make kale a go-to veggie,” Sass says. “It’s loaded with immune and skin-supporting vitamins A and C, bone-supporting vitamin K, health-protective antioxidants, and natural detoxifiers, which help deactivate potentially damaging chemicals or shuttle them out of the body more quickly.”
If you have yet to sip on some collagen-rich bone broth, make it a point to do so ASAP, especially if you’re experiencing repeated bouts of acid reflux. Not only is collagen known to alleviate joint pain and promote skin elasticity, but it can also fend off inflammation in the gut.
Related: 5 Health Benefits of Bone Broth
Munch on this snack to reap its alkalizing effects, and, similar to watermelon, get an extra boost of hydration.
“Celery is made up of more than 90% water, and it’s not an acidic vegetable,” explains Rizzo. “If you can’t drink enough water throughout the day, eating celery may help you stay hydrated and calm acid reflux symptoms.”
It also has the ability to quell hunger pangs, so if it’s 5:30 p.m. and dinner isn’t until 7 p.m., grab a stalk of celery to quiet those grumbles and help prevent the acid reflux symptoms that can keep you from sleeping.
One word: bromelain. This enzyme is one of the sole reasons why pineapple is one of the best foods to eat to tame the flame of acid reflux. More specifically, bromelain is an anti-inflammatory agent that aids digestion and, as a result, reduces your symptoms of acid reflux. You’ll also boost your metabolism with a cup of fresh pineapple!
These low-in-calorie red bulbs contain a variety of chemicals that enable digestion to flow smoothly, making your chances of experiencing an acidic uproar in your throat very minimal. Numerous cultures swear by the radishes’ ability to alleviate heartburn and stomach aches and gas. In addition, radishes are key players in keeping your gallbladder in good health.
Broccoli is loaded in probiotics, which are made up of good bacteria that your gut loves to flourish in. (Perhaps you have heard doctors recommend yogurt to their patients if they prescribed them antibiotics, because antibiotics extinguish all—good and bad—gut bugs.) Probiotics work to protect the good and keep away the bad, which can sneakily encourage gastric acid to fuss with your LES.
Rizzo says eating a diet full of green vegetables is the best diet for combating acid reflux, especially broccoli. “It’s high on the pH scale, meaning that it’s alkaline and not acidic. However, broccoli is very rich in fiber and can cause gas and indigestion in some people with digestive issues.” she says.
Having optimal gut-healthy bacteria is a key factor in dodging acidic upset. Seeking out foods rich in probiotics can help your stomach flourish in good gut flora that facilitates digestion and absorption of nutrients from food. Some fermented foods to try include things like drinking kombucha and eating sauerkraut and kimchi. They will give you the good kind of bacteria, and, as a result, promote gut health.
Lastly, we have this tropical fruit! Papain is the enzyme credible for improving your digestion and assisting your body with absorbing protein. It can also, of course, help with acid reflux. Put down that bottle of Tums for good, and dig into a juicy papaya any time during the day instead.
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