Foods to Avoid if You Suffer From Acid Reflux
That coffee might not have been a good idea, after all
Updated: Thursday 15 April 2021
If you suffer from acid reflux, the symptoms will be all too familiar. A burning sensation in the chest, a bitter taste in your mouth, a bloated stomach - all these sensations may cause mild to severe discomfort, depending on how severe your reflux is.
You might like to know that if you do suffer from acid reflux, you’re not alone. Around 60% of the UK population gets acid reflux at some point in the year, and up to 30% experience it on a weekly basis.
Whilst this won’t be much consolation for people whose symptoms are causing them distress, luckily there are a number of treatments and medications available to ease the symptoms of acid reflux. Prescription treatments such as omeprazole and over-the-counter remedies such as Gaviscon can help reduce discomfort.
However, the best place to start is often with your diet. There are a number of ‘trigger’ foods that can cause the stomach to overproduce gastric acid, thereby setting off acid reflux symptoms. People with acid reflux often find that their symptoms improve when they cut down on these foods.
Which foods set off acid reflux?
The answer to this question varies from person to person. Usually, people who regularly experience acid reflux will know which foods tend to make their symptoms worse and should therefore be avoided.
If you’ve only recently started experiencing acid reflux, it may be helpful to start a diary to keep track of your symptoms. That way, you’ll be able to work out when your symptoms get worse, and if there are any specific foods that set them off.
Although not everyone will have the same trigger foods, there are some foods that are believed to be more likely to set off acid reflux symptoms. These include.
1. Spicy foods
It’s quite common for people to find their acid reflux symptoms get worse after eating spicy foods. The empirical evidence that spicy foods cause the oesophageal sphincter to relax is currently quite limited, but there is evidence to suggest spicy foods take longer to digest.
That second part is important. Foods that take a long time to digest sit in the stomach longer, which is a risk factor for heartburn. A study conducted in 1992 found that chilli powder reduces the speed of digestion, suggesting spicy foods could very well set off acid reflux symptoms in people who eat them.
The other problem with spicy foods is that they can irritate the oesophagus. This isn’t usually a problem for people who don’t have acid reflux. But for those who do, the oesophagus is already inflamed - meaning spicy foods can make their symptoms worse.
2. High-fat meals
Foods with high fat content may cause acid reflux for a number of reasons. First, there’s evidence to suggest they cause the lower oesophageal sphincter to relax, which makes it easier for stomach acid to travel back up the oesophagus.
Second, fatty foods stimulate the production of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK is created by the gastrointestinal system in order to help it digest fat and protein. It’s also a hunger suppressant, which helps your stomach understand when it’s full.
The problem with CCK is that it may also make acid reflux symptoms worse by causing the lower oesophageal sphincter to relax. It also encourages food to stay in the stomach longer, which increases the risk that reflux symptoms will occur.
Curries, takeaways, and now chocolate. It might sound like we’re trying to remove everything fun from your life, but unfortunately chocolate can cause reflux symptoms as well.
Chocolate can cause the lower oesophageal tract to relax for a number of reasons. First, the cocoa in chocolate contains an ingredient called tryptophan which is converted in the body to serotonin. Most people know serotonin as the “happy hormone” due to its importance for regulating mood. But it affects the body in a number of different ways as well - one of which is reducing the pressure of the lower oesophageal sphincter.
The other problem with cocoa is that it also contains caffeine and a bitter alkaloid called theobromine. There is evidence to suggest that both of these substances can cause the lower oesophageal sphincter to relax.
This applies to all onions, but especially raw ones. Again, research suggests that onions may cause the lower oesophageal sphincter to relax, allowing stomach acid to flow back up the oesophagus.
That isn’t all. Onions also contain a high amount of a fermentable fibre. Usually, fermentable fibre is a good thing: it stimulates the production of good bacteria in the colon, helps stabilise blood glucose, and suppresses bad cholesterol and triglycerides.
Unfortunately, fermentable fibre also causes belching when consumed. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue. But for people who suffer from acid reflux, belching can aggravate their symptoms. In addition, the fermentable fibre in onions also contain FODMAPs, a group of carbohydrates that may trigger digestive problems.
Like other foods in this list, alcohol also causes the oesophageal sphincter to relax. But specific alcoholic beverages, including wine and beer, can also cause the stomach to produce more gastric acid. This makes it more likely that some of the acid will travel back up the oesophagus.
In addition, excessive alcohol consumption can also damage the lining of the oesophagus, which over time will make it more sensitive to stomach acid.
Coffee has been shown to relax the lower oesophageal sphincter like many of the other foods in this list.
The evidence linking coffee to reflux symptoms, however, is inconclusive. While some studies show that coffee relaxes the lower oesophageal sphincter, others show no link between the two.
That said, if coffee does cause your symptoms to flare up, you should avoid it or limit your intake.
It’s common for people to use milk as a remedy for acid reflux. Intuitively, it makes sense: milk counteracts acidity, which should therefore alleviate reflux symptoms.
The reality, however, isn’t that simple. If you do drink milk in order to neutralise stomach acid, your stomach will usually respond by making more. Because excess stomach acid is a risk factor for acid reflux, it may be the case that milk may actually make your symptoms worse, rather than better.
Not all milks are created equal, however: there’s evidence to suggest that the fat content of whole milk makes it more likely to cause acid reflux symptoms than skimmed or semi-skimmed milks.
Are there any foods that are good for acid reflux?
Yes! Though you might not find them as exciting as some of the foods above. There aren’t any foods that will cure acid reflux entirely, but a number of low-acidity foods and lean meats can help reduce symptoms quite substantially. These include:
- Lean meats and seafood - Lean meats including turkey and chicken seafood are all low-fat and reduce stomach acid production.
- Green vegetables - Vegetables are naturally low in sugar and reduce stomach acid production. Think asparagus, green beans, leafy greens and broccoli.
- Non-citrus fruits - Bananas and melons are two examples of low-acidity fruits that also contain magnesium, a mineral found in acid reflux treatments.
- Oats and porridge - Oats are an excellent source of healthy fibre that also absorbs stomach acid.
- Ginger - Ginger is rich in antioxidants, which among other benefits can also reduce inflammation. This is a great way to reduce reflux symptoms.
How else can I reduce my acid reflux symptoms?
While foods often trigger acid reflux symptoms, they’re often not the root cause. In fact, you may find more permanent relief by making a number of other lifestyle changes, including eating smaller meals, getting regular exercise, losing weight and stopping smoking. As always, if your acid reflux is getting in the way of day-to-day activities, you should see your GP to find the right treatment plan.
Authored by Iris Barbier
Born in France, Iris moved to the UK to study Biological Sciences at London Metropolitan University. Upon graduating, Iris moved up north, where she completed an MA in Science Journalism at the University of Lincoln.
As a qualified science journalist, Iris uses her expertise to write content for Pharmica’s online Health Centre. She ensures our patients get specialist knowledge on medical conditions and how to treat them.