By Barbara Stepko, AARP, December 2022
Tweak your diet with these 16 foods to help banish the burn before it becomes GERD.
The meal may be over, but for some the memory lingers on. And not in a good way. Heartburn, chest pain, belching, coughing, regurgitation — it’s all part of the unpleasant picture for those with acid reflux. In fact, 20 percent of adults have chronic acid reflux, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD), a condition caused by the flow of contents from the stomach upward into the esophagus. What’s behind the burn: a weakening or malfunctioning of a ring of muscle at the base of the esophagus, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When this doesn’t close properly, any acid-containing contents of your stomach can flow back up into the esophagus.
While antacids and other over-the-counter medication can help tame stomach acid, dietary tweaks can reduce the frequency and intensity of symptoms such as heartburn. Here are eight foods that can help you find relief from heartburn or GERD. But keep in mind, “every person is different,” says Julie Stefanski, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help identify which specific foods may ease your heartburn.
8 Foods that help with acid reflux
According to a small 2018 World Journal of Gastroenterology study, high-fiber consumption may minimize issues with GERD. “High-fiber foods make you feel full,” says Neena Mohan, assistant professor of clinical medicine in gastroenterology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. “That’s a good thing, because you’re less likely to overeat, which can contribute to heartburn.” What’s more, oatmeal in particular absorbs stomach acid. Other high-fiber options: whole-grain bread, brown rice and quinoa, as well as green vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and brussels sprouts. But remember, Stefanski says: “Fiber can’t work unless there is also enough fluid in your diet,” so make sure to drink plenty of water.
This low-acid fruit can help neutralize stomach acid by coating an irritated esophageal lining. And not only are bananas alkaline, they’re also rich in pectin — a soluble fiber that helps keeps food flowing nicely through the digestive tract. This can help you feel full longer, so you’re less likely to overeat. Other alkaline foods include melons (particularly cantaloupe and honeydew), cauliflower and almonds. Bonus: They can also ease acid upflow by coating an irritated esophageal lining.
3. Salad greens
Pile up your plate: These mild green leafy veggies are alkaline, so they’re easy on the gut and won’t cause painful gas. In fact, a small 2017 study, published in JAMA Otalaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery, showed that people who followed a plant-based Mediterranean diet heavy in such produce reported less frequent acid reflux symptoms. Just resist the urge to add high-fat dressings, acidic vinaigrettes or toppings such as onions, which can trigger GERD, Stefanski notes.
Like milk, yogurt acts as a temporary buffer, soothing heartburn symptoms. “One of the reasons we’re symptomatic with acid reflux is because it causes damage to the lining of the esophagus,” says Nipaporn Pichetshote, M.D., a gastroenterology specialist at UCLA Medical Center. “Milk and yogurt coat the esophagus so you don’t feel that acid irritating that lining.” More happiness: Yogurt is rich in probiotics, which promote a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, helping with digestion — along with upping absorption of nutrients. Opt for skim or low-fat varieties, rather than those made from whole milk. “Foods that are higher in fat can cause more reflux,” Pichetshote says.
5. Ginger tea
A cup or two a day may offer a triple whammy of benefits. Not only is this soothing drink alkaline, it’s also anti-inflammatory, which can help relieve gastroesophageal irritation and soothe the stomach. Ginger can also help ease nausea — helpful for those vulnerable to vomiting during acid reflux episodes.
Those heart-boosting omega-3 fatty acids are just for starters. This pinkish fish — along with other lean proteins such as chicken and turkey — is always a smart choice. It’s easy to digest and won’t linger in your stomach for a long time, reducing your risk of reflux. If you choose chicken or turkey, remember to remove the fatty skin and opt for baking, broiling or grilling, instead of frying. Add flavor with herbs (think: parsley and basil) instead of spices, if they bother your belly.
Its name pretty much says it all: This melon has a high water content (a whopping 92 percent), and it’s alkaline, which can help counteract stomach acid. Watermelon also has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which helps ease digestion. Other veggies that belong to the gut-friendly alkaline family include celery and cucumbers.
8. Sweet potato
Root vegetables — carrots and beets are two others — boast soluble fiber, which is easy to digest. It also does a nice job of filling you up so you don’t overeat, which can lead to heartburn. Need more reasons to put a fork in it? These nutrient powerhouses are not spicy or acidic, nor high in fat.
More ways to avoid heartburn
Sometimes it is not just what you eat, but how you eat. Check out these tips for taming those searing symptoms.
Maintain a healthy weight
Obesity — particularly when those extra pounds gather around your middle — increases abdominal pressure, upping the chance that stomach acid will be forced up into the esophagus. A 2016 study, published in the journal Neurogastroenterology & Motility, followed 15,295 subjects with general or abdominal obesity, who had experienced GERD symptoms for several years. What researchers found: Those who reduced their body mass index (BMI) by 4.4 pounds or more and their waist circumference by about 2 inches or more improved their GERD symptoms. “Weight is the biggest trigger for GERD,” says Rena Yadlapati, M.D., a gastroenterologist and medical director of the Center for Esophageal Diseases at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s been shown in studies that weight loss, particularly around the belly, is the most impactful lifestyle intervention for reducing reflux symptoms.”
Don’t slouch when eating
It may be tempting to settle into the cushions and watch TV while inhaling that plate of buffalo wings. But sitting less than straight while you chow down can encourage gastric juices to head in the wrong direction. “Liquid and gas want to go to the path of least resistance,” Pichetshote says. “If you’re laying down it can easily go up toward your head. If you’re a little more upright, it has to fight gravity to move upward.” The same goes for sleeping: Wait at least two to three hours after eating before hitting the sack. In fact, notes Yadlapati, “Studies have shown that if you wait three hours or longer from the time of eating to being in a 45-degree angle — whether that’s sitting on the couch, reading a book or watching TV in bed, or going to sleep — there are less regurgitation episodes and reflux in general.” At bedtime, use a solid foam wedge to slightly elevate your head, shoulders and torso. Studies have shown that sleeping on your left side actually helps with reflux.
Avoid overeating and eat slowly
Overeating is never a good idea. When your stomach is distended and bloated, acid can rise back into the esophagus, triggering symptoms. But an empty stomach can cause problems, too. Go more than three to four hours without a meal or snack, and stomach acid — which would usually be used in the digestive process to break down food — collects. Eat smaller meals throughout the day and eat slowly. And choose water to wash things down.
Avoid tight-fitting clothes
Clothes that are snug around the midsection can constrict the belly area, squeezing your stomach and pushing acid up into the esophagus, says Gulchin Ergun, M.D., a gastroenterology specialist in Houston and professor of medicine in digestive disorders at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Work out wisely
For some people, exercise can trigger acid reflux symptoms — particularly moves that increase abdominal pressure, such as crunches. Stick with seated and standing exercises that allow gravity to work to your advantage. Take it slow — too much jostling of the stomach contents may make problems worse. Your best bet: low impact, low intensity moves, such as walking. A 2013 study, published in the International Journal of Yoga, found that six months of yoga significantly reduced stomach acid in GERD patients using a proton pump inhibitor to lower stomach acid levels. Just be sure to avoid pretzel positions.
8 foods to avoid for acid reflux or heartburn
Adjusting your diet may play a key role in managing the symptoms of GERD. You may well find one or more of the following eight foods pops up as a problem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should completely remove them from your diet. Moderation is key. “Symptom-provoking foods can differ from person to person,” Yadlapati says. “That’s why we don’t suggest that people avoid all [potential GERD-inducing foods], because those tend to be foods we all enjoy, and it can be quality of life-impairing to take those out of their lives. Instead, identify your trigger, then try to limit that.” Experts say you can uncover your specific triggers by paying close attention to how your body reacts to what you’re eating. (Keeping a food diary can help.)
1. Fried, fatty foods
Foods that are high in fat and drenched in oil (bacon and sausage, french fries, potato chips and doughnuts, to name a few) are digested slowly and sit in your stomach longer, giving gastric acid more time to work its way up into your esophagus, increasing your risk of heartburn. And high-fat food can cause weight gain. That extra poundage increases pressure on your abdomen, making it easier for fluid to travel upward into the esophagus. Tip: Opt instead for lean cuts of meat, chicken and fish, cooked on the grill or in the oven.
2. Citrus fruits
Their vitamin C may be the draw, but these fruits’ high acid content makes them risky for reflux. (Our stomachs naturally produce a lot of acid; why make things worse?) Lemons and limes are the biggest culprits, but oranges, grapefruit, grapes and blueberries make the list, too. Tip: Offset their acidity by buffering them with more alkaline (less acidic) foods, such as low-fat yogurt. “It’s also about how people consume these acidic foods,” Pichetshote says. “It’s been shown that people actually take longer to consume these acidic foods — they take smaller bites, so the acid is actually in the esophagus much longer.”
Also highly acidic, this common base for many meals can aggravate an already cranky digestive tract — and no, cooking tomatoes won’t help. Tip: If you can’t resist the robust flavor of marinara sauce, neutralize the acid by adding one-quarter teaspoon of baking soda to your recipe.
Savoring a few pieces of Godiva chocolates probably won’t do a lot of damage, but polishing off half the box in one sitting may. Cacao is naturally acidic and can trigger a nasty burn — and the high fat content won’t do your digestion any favors. More bad news: Some studies have shown that chocolate may cause the esophageal sphincter to relax and open, allowing that unwanted flow back up the esophagus.
A cup of refreshing, mint-infused tea can calm a turbulent tummy. But peppermint, in any form, can also cause gastric reflux and heartburn. Tip: Savor a cup of soothing chamomile tea or suck on licorice-flavored hard candy to soothe your stomach.
6. Carbonated beverages
The bubbles in carbonated beverages are like air pockets, expanding in your belly. This increases pressure on the esophageal sphincter, increasing the risk for acid to reflux into the esophagus. Tip: Try decaf iced tea or dress up tap water with slices of cucumber.
While studies on the subject are mixed, some have shown that caffeinated beverages may impair the function of the muscles that separate the esophagus and stomach. What’s more, drinking caffeinated coffee may also increase the amount of acid that your stomach produces. Tip: If a decaf brew isn’t for you, try a dark roast coffee (it tends to have less caffeine per bean than lighter roasts). Or cozy up to a cup of herbal tea.
More reasons to drink in moderation: Alcohol can irritate the esophagus and make the stomach produce more acid. Excessive drinking may also relax that gateway of the lower esophageal sphincter muscle. Tip: When it comes to wine, white is more acidic than red and may cause more heartburn. Beer is acidic, and it’s carbonated — both bad news. But it has a lower alcohol content compared with other alcoholic beverages, and may be better for heartburn. Prefer the stronger stuff? Know this: Darker drinks (brandy, whiskey and dark rum) contain compounds called congeners, which can increase stomach irritation and heartburn symptoms.