Heartburn Diet and Food Choices

If you suffer from heartburn, an acid reflux diet can help. The aim of the diet is to choose foods that can minimize (and, in some cases, help neutralize) stomach acid while providing you the means to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.

While some foods are known to aggravate heartburn, other have little or no potential for harm. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the "safe" list is the same for all people. In the end, you will need to approach the diet in a structured manner for at least a couple of weeks and keep a food diary to record which foods work for you, which ones don’t, and which seem to improve symptoms.

It’s equally important to keep track of how you prepare your meals. While it may seem obvious that deep-fried foods are a no-no, simple things like the spices you use or whether foods contain nitrites or not can make a big difference in how your stomach reacts. In some cases, it may not be the foods that trigger an acid attack but the little extras people overlook.

The same applies to smoking and alcohol, both of which trigger reflux in surprising and insidious ways.

Why Certain Foods Cause Us Harm

Before breaking down the list of foods you may or may not eat, it is helpful to have a general understanding of why certain foods cause reflux.

In some cases, it may seem obvious. Acid-rich beverages like orange juice (which contains citric and ascorbic acid) and cranberry juice (which has a combination of citric, malic, quinic acids, benzoic, and glucuronic acids) simply add to the hydrochloric acid in the stomach.

Other problems may not be so obvious. High-fat foods, for instance, are troublesome because they tend to sit in the stomach longer and in order to digest them, the body needs to produce excess acid. In contrast, caffeinated foods, which are inherently high in acids, can actually stimulate the production of stomach acid, making an already bad situation worse.

At the same time, the amount of food you eat can cause you trouble. For example, if you overstuff yourself, your stomach is forced to extend. This can cause the muscle that separates the stomach from the esophagus (called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES) to open slightly and seep acid in the wrong direction. Going to bed with a full stomach only makes things worse.

Alcohol has a similar effect by relaxing the LES, allowing stomach contents to reflux back. And it’s not just that alcohol relaxes the muscle; it causes it to contract erratically, resulting in physical pain or discomfort. Smoking mirrors these effects and exacerbates the problem by inflaming not only the trachea (the windpipe) but esophagus, as well.

Safe Foods in an Acid Reflux Diet

By contrast, certain foods are known to have an alkalizing effect. Alkaline is essentially the polar opposite of acid. By eating these foods you can counteract at least some, if not all, of the excess acid being produced by the stomach.

This is how we know that certain foods are "safe" if you are suffering from occasional heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Food Group Foods With Little Potential to Cause Heartburn
Fruit Apple, fresh
Apple, dried
Apple juice
Vegetables Baked potato
Green beans
Meat Ground beef, extra lean
Steak, lean
Chicken breast, skinless
Turkey tenderloin
Egg whites
Egg substitute
Fish, no added salt
Dairy Cheese, feta or goat
Cream cheese, fat-free
Sour cream, fat-free
Soy cheese, low-fat
Grains Bread, multi-grain or white
Cereal, bran or oatmeal
Graham crackers
Rice, brown or white
Rice cakes
Beverages Mineral water
Herbal tea, non-caffeinated*
Oils Salad dressing, low-fat
Snacks Cookies, fat-free
Jelly beans
Red licorice
Potato chips, baked

* Avoid peppermint and spearmint tea.

A Word From Verywell

Controlling the symptoms of reflux is about more than just what you eat. You can also do with simple lifestyle changes and treatments. Among them:

  • Chewing gum produces saliva which may help control reflux. That said, avoid peppermint or spearmint flavor, which can make things worse.
  • Do not eat before bedtime. Schedule your dinner three to four hours in advance.
  • Do not lay down immediately after eating. Remain seated for a couple of hours.
  • Raise the head of your bed several inches to reduce symptoms when sleeping.
  • Use an antacid when needed.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Stop smoking.
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Article Sources
  • Kubo, A.; Block, G.; Quesenberry, C.; et al. "Dietary guideline adherence for gastroesophageal reflux disease." BMC Gastroenterology. 2014; 14:144:DOI 10.1186/1471-230X-14-144.