When you have acid reflux, it’s difficult to know what to eat and not to eat. Many otherwise healthy foods can be quite problematic and encourage acid reflux, leaving you confused with regards to what foods you should eat and what foods you should avoid in order to control the symptoms and manage the condition. While some foods like hot peppers, coffee or fermented dairy are known triggers for acid reflux for many people, others like tuna or peppermint may only affect few, making acid reflux quite an individual and difficult condition to manage.
What is acid reflux?
Acid reflux occurs when stomach juices rise up into the esophagus, causing the inflammation of the esophagus lining and symptoms such as heartburn, regurgitation, bad, metallic or acidic taste in the mouth, coughing and even laryngospasms. Acid reflux can be an occasional occurrence in response to a particular food or circumstance that is upsetting for you. If it occurs regularly, then acid reflux is a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, a medical condition-proper and needs to be addressed accordingly.
What causes acid reflux episodes?
Very often, acid reflux is caused by what you eat. Heavy foods, fried or fatty foods, spices, garlic and onions, cold meats, sodas etc. are common culprits, but did you know that broccoli, green tea and tomato juice can also cause stomach acidity and acid reflux? In reality, foods don’t have to be unhealthy to be bad for our stomach.
They can have too much dietary fiber like beans, or contain natural sulfur compounds like broccoli or cabbage, causing air in the GI tract due to fermentation, and resulting in bloating and excess burping that lead to the regurgitation of stomach juices.
Foods that are bad for acid reflux may contain a natural irritant component like caffeine coffee, caffeine and theobromine in cocoa and chocolate, curcumin in turmeric or capsaicin in hot chili peppers. For some people it’s a matter of sensitivity to a certain food or a particular constituent in a food that causes them to simply not respond well to said food.
Sometimes it’s about how much of a certain food we eat. For example, ginger can be great in small amounts (chunks of ginger added to tea, for example, or a little ginger powder on top of food or a beverage), but can be devastating for our stomach when eaten in large amounts, or even too frequently.
There are different reasons for why so many foods can trigger acid reflux. Just as important, it doesn’t have to be the same problematic food for everyone. I may get acid reflux from eating peppers or ginger or yogurt, while for you coffee, parmesan cheese or pork roast may be problematic foods.
We are all different and likely to respond differently to various foods. This being said, some foods are more likely to cause acid reflux than others and some are more likely to trigger it only in certain people. Read below to find out the most common foods to avoid for acid reflux.
What foods to avoid for acid reflux
Fermented dairy like hard cheeses (cow, sheep or goat cheese), matured cheeses (Gouda cheese, parmesan cheese, cheddar cheese), soured milk or buttermilk, kefir, plain (sour) yogurt, sour cream are commonly foods that are bad for acid reflux. Whole milk and butter eaten in large amounts can worsen acid reflux too, although they aren’t necessarily a trigger when consumed in very small amounts.
Pork, game, beef and other heavy meats
Red meat in general is heavy on the stomach and many people experience gastroesophageal reflux after eating pork, venison, beef and even turkey (especially ground turkey meat). Pork, beef, sheep, turkey and even chicken liver is heavy and causes severe acid reflux.
Cold meats, deli meats or cold cuts
Cold meats include everything from ham, sausages, bacon to smoked salmon. The reason they cause acid reflux is because they are often highly processed, contain additives, curing salts, are rich in fat (most are made from heavy meats like pork), are smoked etc.
Heavy foods, processed foods and fried foods
Pork roast, liver and onions, meat sautéed in butter, fried chicken, French fries, lentils made with butter, fish and chips, fried fish in general, pre-cooked meals, all sorts of pastry, sweet biscuits, candy, cakes and anything that is processed, fried, heavy or fatty will cause acid reflux.
Oily fish like tuna and salmon
Despite being otherwise extremely healthy, oily fish such as tuna and salmon are quite heavy on the stomach and cause acid reflux very often, or worsen an active condition. The same healthy fatty acids in oily fish that promote brain and cardiovascular health can worsen stomach acidity if intake is excessive. After all, they are still fats. So even if oily fish have the coveted Omega-3 fatty acids, and Omega-6, that doesn’t mean they are free of side effects.
Coffee and alcohol, caffeinated and carbonated beverages
Both coffee and alcohol irritate the stomach and the esophagus, causing inflammation and triggering acid reflux. Moreover, they are bad for both gastritis and ulcer. Caffeinated and carbonated beverages are too.
Cocoa and chocolate, green tea
Cocoa and chocolate contain caffeine, theophylline and theobromine, three elements which are irritants for the stomach lining and generate acidity (read about the side effects of chocolate). Green tea, black tea and, to a lesser extent, white tea, also cause acid reflux because of their caffeine content.
Citrus fruit and fruit juices
Citrus fruits such as lemons, grapefruit, oranges etc., and other fruits, contain irritating organic acids such as citric acid (in citrus fruit), malic acid (in apples) and can cause acid reflux. Fruit juices are bad for acid reflux because they contain them too, often times intakes of the organic acids being greater from fruit juices than whole fruit. Citric and malic acid irritate the stomach lining and work up the stomach by increasing the production of gastric acid and the likelihood of regurgitation which is why they trigger acidity.
Spices and herbs, especially when used excessively
Sweet bell peppers, spicy chili peppers, ginger, turmeric, peppermint, spearmint and more spices and herbs can be bad for you if you have acid reflux. Both sweet and hot peppers are commonly bad foods to eat for acid reflux because of their content of spicy capsaicin and non-spicy capsaicinoid components which exert an irritating effect on the mucous membrane of the esophagus and stomach.
Turmeric can worsen acidity if eaten in excessive amounts (find out why turmeric is bad for you). Pepper and ginger are also potential irritants for the stomach lining and can worsen acid reflux. Peppermint and spearmint tend to relax the muscle the keeps stomach juices in a little too much, hence the reason they cause regurgitation of stomach juices and acid reflux.
Tomatoes, fresh and canned, tomato juice, paste and sauce
Tomatoes, both fresh and canned, and the juice, paste and sauce made from them are known to cause and worsen acid reflux and gastritis. Tomatoes and tomato byproducts are naturally acidic and acidic foods are bad for acid reflux, especially when eaten too frequently or in too large amounts.
Onion and cabbage family vegetables
Garlic, green garlic, onions, spring onions, chives, leek, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and other onion and cabbage family vegetables are foods best avoided in acid reflux disease. The reason for this is they both cause and worsen stomach acidity as they are rich in natural organosulfur compounds and fibers that are difficult to digest. As a result, they cause irritation of the lining of the esophagus and stomach and ferment, leading to air in the GI tract and associated symptoms such as stomach gas, bloating and excessive burping that encourage the escape of gastric juices into the esophagus.
High fiber foods such as legumes
Vegetables rich in dietary fiber such as legumes (e.g. beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils) can be bad foods to eat with acid reflux disease. Dietary fiber is generally bad for both acid reflux and gastritis because it ferments and causes air buildup in the gastrointestinal tract. Said air is eliminated via flatulence or excessive burping, the latter causing stomach juices to escape and work their way up into the esophagus and as far as the mouth, resulting in acid reflux attacks with heartburn, chest pain, a sour taste in the mouth, a burning sensation in the back of the throat and more side effects.
While you can eat limited amounts of some legumes, whether it’s beans or peas, preferably infrequently, if you have acid reflux, it’s better to avoid eating too of these types of vegetables, at least for a while. If you can eat legumes without side effects with acid reflux, how much you can actually eat depends on your individual tolerance of the fiber in them and associated digestive effects.
Canned or tinned foods
Canned tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines and other fish are common triggers for acid reflux. Options such as canned tuna are more likely to cause stomach acidity, whether it’s tuna in brine, in extravirgin olive oil, refined olive oil, sunflower oil or a sauce like tomato sauce, garlic sauce or lemon juice. Canned mackerel or sardines for example are somewhat less likely to cause stomach acidity if packaged in brine, but are just as bad for acid reflux when canned in olive oil, sunflower oil or tomato or other sauces.
A lot of pre-cooked canned foods are possible triggers for acid reflux, especially heavier or oily canned foods or canned foods rich in flavoring agents, spices, condiments or preservatives. Canned pork, pork and beans, beef, even chicken, chicken soup and other types of canned soup, and most pre-cooked canned meals can trigger or worsen acid reflux. For the most part, the higher the content of cooking oils, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, turmeric, ginger, fish sauce, soy sauce, lemon juice etc., the more severe the side effects.
What foods to eat for acid reflux
What to eat for acid reflux? If you have acid reflux, eat simply. That is, choose plain foods that are on the blander side and avoid problematic foods that are known to worsen acid reflux. Research what foods you respond well to and focus on them. As a general recommendation, avoid heavy foods, high in fat or oil, spices, heavily seasoned and fried foods, even roasted stuff, acidic, fermented, sour or matured foods. Opt for boiled, steamed or grilled food. For me, the following foods in particular are good for my acid reflux:
- Lean chicken meat (anything except for the skin and liver), and lean turkey meat.
- Green, leafy vegetables, especially spinach, but also patience dock, sorrel and similar options.
- Rice and pasta, even whole wheat pasta and brown rice, as well as corn flour.
- Root vegetables like potatoes, celeriac, sweet potatoes, carrots, turnip, and also zucchini.
- Eggs, soft boiled, hard boiled or poached eggs, or oven baked eggs without any added fat or spices.
- Fruits: ripe bananas, pears, cooked quinces, cooked apples, raspberries, figs, watermelon.
- Salted or plain crackers, soft pretzels, flat bread, toast or fresh bread made from white flour.
- Ricotta cheese, cottage cheese or fresh cow cheese (consumed in limited amounts and infrequently).
- Raw nuts and seeds, consumed infrequently and in small servings: walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, cashews, even almonds.
- White fish like aurata, orata or gilt-head sea bream, cod, eaten occasionally and always boiled.
- Other seafood: boiled crab meat.
Digestive health is a complex notion that should be considered individually and explored in order to attain balance. For acid reflux, foods particularly rich in dietary fiber, spicy foods, cold meats, heavy foods and quite a few others are to be avoided. At the same time, otherwise healthy foods like peppers, turmeric, tomato juice or ginger can cause acid reflux just as easily. It’s trial and error until we learn what foods to eat and what foods to avoid for acid reflux, especially considering that the foods that are good for others may be bad for us and vice versa.