In this article, we will explore the worst foods for acid reflux to help provide you with a clear understanding of what can trigger and worsen acid reflux episodes. We will give you valuable tips for managing this uncomfortable condition to ensure that you are well-informed to aid you in making informed decisions regarding your digestive health.
Read on to discover how dietary choices can play a pivotal role in reducing acid reflux and improving your overall well-being.
What is acid reflux?
Acid reflux is a common digestive condition which occurs when stomach acid flows back up to the oesophagus (food pipe connecting your mouth to your stomach). This can result in symptoms such as heartburn (burning feeling in the chest), discomfort and regurgitation1 (undigested food travelling up the food pipe).
Suggested: a figure with a stomach with highlighted parts (mouth, oesophagus, stomach, LES, stomach acid)
Certain foods can often worsen this condition by irritating the oesophagus, relaxing LES and increasing stomach acidity, further promoting irritation and discomfort. Individuals seeking relief from acid reflux would benefit from understanding which foods can worsen their symptoms.2
Worst foods for acid reflux
High-fat foods, such as full-fat dairy products, fried foods, and fatty cuts of meat, are all known triggers in worsening acid reflux. High-fat foods can relax the lower oesophagal sphincter (LES), which is the muscle that separates the food pipe from the stomach. Relaxed LES allows the stomach acid to easily flow back into the oesophagus, causing irritation.3 By avoiding high-fat foods, individuals can experience fewer symptoms of acid reflux less often.
Various citrus fruits and juices (such as grapefruits, oranges and lemons) can trigger acid reflux because of their high acidity levels. Irritating the oesophagus, eating citrus fruits can make symptoms such as regurgitation and heartburn worse.4 Whilst citrus fruits are nutritious, individuals who experience acid reflux can be advised to opt for less acidic alternatives or consume them in moderation. People experiencing acid reflux after eating citrus are recommended to avoid it so as not to trigger the reflux.5
Tomato-based products, including ketchup, tomato sauce and tomatoes themselves, can worsen acid reflux symptoms. Tomatoes are acidic, and tomato-based products often contain added seasonings, which when combined, can further irritate the oesophagus.6 For individuals who experience acid reflux, tomato-based foods can trigger regurgitation and heartburn. As a result, it is often advised for individuals with acid reflux to consume these foods in moderation or to consider alternative sauces to reduce the risk of acid reflux episodes.
Additional foods that are known to trigger acid reflux symptoms are spicy foods such as hot sauces, spicy curries and chilli peppers. These foods contain a specific compound that relaxes the LES and increases the production of stomach acid, which can lead to a higher likelihood of acid reflux episodes. The intense heat caused by spicy foods can further irritate the oesophagus, causing additional discomfort.4 Avoiding or reducing spicy foods for individuals experiencing acid reflux can significantly improve their symptoms.
Carbonated and caffeinated drinks (such as tea, soda and coffee)worsen acid reflux symptoms. Similar to spicy foods and high-fat foods, drinks with caffeine relax the muscles, preventing the acid from the stomach from entering back into the oesophagus.. Additionally, carbonated drinks can introduce air into the stomach, which increases pressure, forcing stomach acid through the already relaxed LES, resulting in acid reflux episodes occurring more often.7
Mint products, such as teas or sweets, are two-faced foods. They can provide temporary relief for digestive discomfort; however, they could also increase heartburn over time. Individuals who are prone to acid reflux should consume these products sparingly,8 and opt for alternative herbal options. Chamomile or ginger can be a better choice for those trying to manage their acid reflux effectively.
Managing acid reflux
A key way of managing acid reflux is through adapting food choices to a reflux-friendly diet. Avoiding trigger foods can alleviate the condition's symptoms and improve day-to-day functioning. Instead of fatty, acidic, and spicy meals, alkaline-rich foods could soothe irritated digestive systems by neutralising the acidic conditions in the stomach. Low-fat dairy products, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and non-citrus fruits can reduce the irritation of the oesophagus when stomach acid enters it during a reflux.2 In addition, having more frequent yet smaller meals can prevent overeating which reduces the pressure on the LES and reduces the likelihood of acid reflux episodes. Furthermore, after eating, maintaining an upright posture instead of lying down can also minimise acid reflux symptoms and aid in digestion9.
In addition to dietary adjustments, managing acid reflux often requires making certain lifestyle changes. Simply elevate the head of your bed only by a few inches at night to prevent the stomach acid from flowing back into the oesophagus. The number of reflux episodes can be controlled by maintaining a healthy weight, which reduces the pressure on the oesophageal muscle and the risk of its opening. It is also crucial for individuals prone to acid reflux to quit smoking to prevent worsening acid reflux symptoms9. Furthermore, practising relaxation and mindfulness techniques can reduce the likelihood of acid reflux episodes that are triggered by stress.4
Medical guidance and medications
Acid reflux can also be managed with medical guidance and medications, which can be essential for individuals with chronic or severe symptoms. Healthcare professionals may prescribe specific medications such as H2 receptor antagonists and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which help to reduce the production of stomach acid and reduce symptoms.10 Additionally, a form of short-term relief can be provided by a group of medications known as antacids, which neutralise the existing stomach acid. For personalised guidance and medications, it is crucial to consult a healthcare provider to ensure effective and safe management for acid reflux. Healthcare professionals can monitor progress and conduct appropriate diagnostic tests, especially if lifestyle changes and dietary adjustments prove to be insufficient in managing the condition.
To summarise, the worst foods for acid reflux involve highly acidic foods such as tomatoes, fatty and spicy dishes, and citrus fruits. These particular foods can worsen acid reflux symptoms by relaxing the lower oesophageal sphincter (LES) as well as directly irritating the oesophagus. Dietary adjustments and lifestyle changes are key in managing acid reflux to help minimise symptoms and prevent irritation and discomfort. It is vital to avoid foods that trigger acid reflux and instead opt for foods rich in alkaline, such as lean proteins, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and non-citrus fruits and vegetables. In addition, having more frequent yet smaller meals, as well as maintaining an upright posture after eating instead of lying down too soon, can further help to improve acid reflux symptoms. Overall, making dietary adjustments and lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the frequency and intensity of acid reflux symptoms.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases [Internet]. [cited 2023 Sep 15]. Acid reflux (Ger & gerd) in adults - niddk. Available from: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults
- Gerd diet: foods that help with acid reflux(Heartburn) [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Sep 15]. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/gerd-diet-foods-that-help-with-acid-reflux-heartburn
- Newberry C, Lynch K. The role of diet in the development and management of gastroesophageal reflux disease: why we feel the burn. J Thorac Dis [Internet]. 2019 Aug [cited 2023 Sep 15];11(Suppl 12):S1594–601. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6702398/
- Kaltenbach T, Crockett S, Gerson LB. Are lifestyle measures effective in patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease? : an evidence-based approach. Archives of Internal Medicine [Internet]. 2006 May 8 [cited 2023 Sep 15];166(9):965–71. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.166.9.965
- Katz PO, Dunbar K, Schnoll-Sussman FH, Greer KB, Yadlapati R, Spechler SJ. Acg clinical guideline: guidelines for the diagnosis and management of gastroesophageal reflux disease. Am J Gastroenterol [Internet]. 2022 Jan 1 [cited 2024 Jan 5];117(1):27–56. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8754510/
- Salehi B, Sharifi-Rad R, Sharopov F, Namiesnik J, Roointan A, Kamle M, et al. Beneficial effects and potential risks of tomato consumption for human health: An overview. Nutrition [Internet]. 2019 Jun 1 [cited 2023 Sep 15];62:201–8. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0899900718312577
- Mohammed AA, Dahlberg M, Namachivayan G, Gunasekaran TS. Association of food and drinks with gastroesophageal reflux symptoms in adolescents: 38. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition [Internet]. 2005 Oct [cited 2023 Sep 15];41(4):504. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/jpgn/Fulltext/2005/10000/ASSOCIATION_OF_FOOD_AND_DRINKS_WITH.61.aspx
- Jarosz M, Taraszewska A. Risk factors for gastroesophageal reflux disease: the role of diet. Prz Gastroenterol [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2023 Sep 15];9(5):297–301. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4223119/
- nhs.uk [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2023 Sep 15]. Heartburn and acid reflux. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heartburn-and-acid-reflux/
- Sigterman KE, van Pinxteren B, Bonis PA, Lau J, Numans ME. Short‐term treatment with proton pump inhibitors, H2‐receptor antagonists and prokinetics for gastro‐oesophageal reflux disease‐like symptoms and endoscopy-negative reflux disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. 2013 May 31 [cited 2023 Sep 15];2013(5): CD002095. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7066537/