If you’ve ever felt a burning sensation in your throat and foul taste in your mouth after eating a meal, those feelings are likely the result of occasional heartburn (acid reflux) or for those who experience it regularly, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and they’re pretty darn uncomfortable, to say the least.
Of course you’ll want to see your doctor to rule out any serious conditions if heartburn is interfering with your daily life. But seeing as how food can play a major role in acid reflux, you may want to adjust your diet even if it only happens occasionally. What are the best foods to ease heartburn, and what should you avoid?
What is acid reflux?
First things first, what causes heartburn, and what is it? Normally, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) acts as a "one-way valve" from the esophagus into the stomach; food will pass through it and the valve will close shortly after.
However, when the LES relaxes too much, it allows stomach contents, including stomach acid, to splash back up into the esophagus, says Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RDN. “While the stomach has a specialized, tough lining designed to withstand its acidic environment, the esophagus does not. This means the acid burns this tissue and causes damage over time,” she explains.
Heartburn symptoms: what to look for
What does acid reflux feel like? You might notice pain and burning near or under the sternum. It's called heartburn, because it can make you feel like your heart is actually burning.
“You feel like you have a burning in your chest or taste acid or bile in the back of your throat. It can definitely take the enjoyment out of eating,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, author of The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner.
Reflux can be triggered by certain foods, but everyone has different triggers, which makes it really difficult to manage, Rizzo says. “Some people might find they feel terrible after eating tomatoes, while others feel worst after chocolate. You have to really listen to your body to figure out what your triggers are and avoid those foods,” she explains.
Acid reflux isn’t genetic, but there are certain factors that can raise your risk of experiencing it, such as obesity, eating a low-fiber or high-fat diet, excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use, says Dixon. Another common cause of acid reflux is a hiatal hernia, i.e. when an opening in the diaphragm allows the top of the stomach to move into the chest, says Rizzo. And even if these don’t apply to you, you might still get heartburn.
If you’re looking for heartburn relief, you’ll definitely want to avoid those “danger foods” that are triggers for you and stick to alkaline foods that are less acidic. While food affects people with acid reflux differently, it’s safe to say these are typically the worst and best things you can put in your body if you do suffer from symptoms.
Foods that cause acid reflux
While not a food, alcohol and acid reflux are surely not friends. “Alcohol is both a cause and a trigger of GERD. It is irritating to tissue and it lowers LES pressure,” says Dixon. It also can lower inhibitions to overeating on greasy, fried foods (hello, post-happy-hour pizza!), and in this indirect way, alcohol can contribute to more heartburn episodes. You’re better off drinking in moderation and drinking water between alcoholic drinks to keep yourself hydrated, she says.
“Drinking enough water can dilute stomach acid a small amount and decrease acidity. But remember, with meals, sip, don't gulp water. Too much water can cause stomach distension and back pressure on the LES, causing it to open up,” says Dixon.
You might love hot sauce, jalapeno poppers and super spicy dips, but all that heat isn’t good for your throat and stomach. “Spicy foods can trigger acid reflux symptoms in many people for 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,” says Rizzo. Instead, ditch the spice and go for something milder when possible.
Tomatoes taste delicious on pizza and in a sauce over spaghetti, but they are acidic in nature, which can be a common trigger for those with acid reflux. “Any food that adds acid into an already acidic system can cause heartburn episodes,” says Dixon. If tomatoes are a big culprit for you, go with a different sauce and topping when possible.
However, the good news is you can mitigate symptoms and enjoy marinara sauce from time to time, says Dixon. “There are products on the market that can be sprinkled on foods to reduce their acidity. Some people find these flavorless powders helpful, especially if they want to enjoy a plate of tomato-based pasta,” she says.
Much like tomatoes, citrus fruit, including grapefruit and oranges, are also acidic and can be problematic for those with acid reflux symptoms, says Dixon. If citrus is a trigger, swap for different fruits that are less acidic, such as melon or berries.
Bad news about your morning cup of java—sure, it smells great and that first sip is amazing, but it might not feel so fantastic later. “The acidic nature of the drink can exacerbate reflux symptoms. If you notice that you experience reflux after your cup of joe, you may be better off switching to green tea,” says Rizzo. “I recommend green tea because black tea has also been known to exacerbate GERD because of its acidic nature; however, hibiscus or herbal tea would probably be fine too, since they aren’t acidic,” she says.
And FYI: don’t go for peppermint tea; even though it may be helpful for digestion, peppermint can be a trigger for reflux, as well. Peppermint is part of a group of foods that contain compounds called "carminatives,” and these substances contribute to GERD in many people, says Dixon. That means peppermint-flavored candies, foods, and tea are all off-limits.
Raw onions and garlic
From the allium family, onions and garlic can cause heartburn, as they can be irritating to the stomach and esophageal lining and can lower LES pressure, or “relax” it, says Dixon. This will cause acid to travel back up towards the esophagus, triggering that sour, acidic taste in your mouth and the uncomfortable burning and pain in your chest.
Greasy and fatty foods can cause the LES to not tighten properly, which leads to stomach acid traveling back up the esophagus, says Rizzo. “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 adds. You’re better off grilling or baking that piece of chicken or fish, instead.
Foods that help acid reflux
It’s a good idea to eat healthy complex carbs from whole grains. “These foods are associated with reducing risk of GERD in multiple studies. The fiber keeps the GI tract functioning well,” says Dixon. These grains, like quinoa, whole wheat, and amaranth, feed your gut microbiome and encourage stomach emptying, she says, which is helpful. “Foods that don't hang around in the stomach can't cause GERD,” she explains.
Eat it: 14 Whole Grain Recipes to Try
Protein is important for keeping the body healthy and preserving lean body mass, but it also helps alleviate GERD symptoms when cooked in a healthy manner (not fatty or fried). “By avoiding high-fat proteins—think fatty meats, bacon, ham, etc.— you get tissue-building protein that doesn't provide a big dose of fat to slow digestion,” says Dixon. Include simply cooked and lean chicken breast, steak, fish, turkey, and tofu in the diet to keep acid reflux symptoms low.
Eat it: Grilled Chicken Blueberry Salad
Beans and peas
“Soluble fiber in particular seems to have stomach soothing properties. Several studies have linked high soluble fiber diets (beans and oats are great examples) with significantly decreased GERD risk,” says Dixon. Why? These foods keep the GI tract functioning well, and they are "absorbent," meaning they can "sop up" some of excess acid in the stomach and prevent it from traveling upwards.
Eat it: Vegan White Bean Hummus
To be fair, most fruits are pretty great for managing acid reflux. However, watermelon is especially great for avoiding flare-ups. “This sweet fruit is more than 90% water and not acidic in nature, so it shouldn’t be a trigger for anyone who suffers from GERD,” says Rizzo.
Eat it: Creative Uses for Watermelon
Most vegetables are on the “eat freely” list, but celery is for sure. “Celery is made up of more than 90% water, and it’s not an acidic vegetable. If you can’t drink enough water throughout the day, eating celery may help you stay hydrated and calm acid reflux symptoms,” says Rizzo. Use it as a crudité for dips for healthy snacking and add it to salads, like a tuna fish salad, for lunch.
Eat it: Fish-Free “Tuna” Salad
Embrace green foods! “The best diet to combat acid reflux is full of green vegetables, like broccoli. It’s high on the pH scale, meaning that it’s alkaline and not acidic,” says Rizzo. There’s another perk—broccoli is very rich in fiber, which can be helpful for combating acid reflux. However, take note, it can cause gas and indigestion in some people with digestive issues, she says.
Eat it: Crunchy Broccoli Slaw
“All of the recommendations for those suffering with acid reflux suggests eating lean proteins, due to their alkaline nature. And the Dietary Guidelines recommend eating fish at least twice each week, so it’s a win-win,” says Rizzo. White fish is a great option (think Mahi Mahi, halibut, or tilapia), but other fish, like salmon or tuna, will also keep acid reflux low. Aim to eat it regularly in the week, along with some green veggies!
Eat it: Baked Dijon-Glazed Mahi Mahi
Have a burning desire for more information on acid reflux? Read this related post: How to Relieve Heartburn and Indigestion Naturally