What to Eat When You Have an Ulcer

An ulcer diet is intended to help reduce the pain and irritation that comes from a peptic ulcer, a painful sore on the lining of your stomach, esophagus, or small intestine.

Foods or beverages don't cause ulcers, nor can they cure them. However, some foods help repair damaged tissue, while others irritate your ulcer and threaten your digestive tract's natural layer of protection.

This article looks at the best foods to choose, the ones to avoid, and some tips on how to make the ulcer diet work best for you.

Benefits

Your healthcare provider is far more likely to treat your ulcer with medications instead of diet alone. Adding an ulcer diet to your treatment can help you feel better faster and possibly prevent another ulcer in the future.

The ulcer diet, combined with your healthcare provider's treatment advice, can bring relief because it can:

  • Correct nutritional deficiencies that contribute to your symptoms
  • Provide the protein and other nutrients your body needs to heal
  • Help you avoid foods that irritate the ulcer
  • Help with related conditions like Crohn's disease, celiac disease, or bacterial infections

Many peptic ulcers are caused by long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can damage your digestive tract lining. Others are caused by a bacterial infection known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). An ulcer diet adds foods with antibacterial effects and compounds that boost healing in both cases.

A 2021 review of medicinal plants published in the Journal of Drug Delivery & Therapeutics looked at a range of natural remedies including polyphenols. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant found in many plant foods that can be used to manage peptic ulcers.

Some polyphenols help to heal stomach lining ulcers faster, while others have antibacterial effects and help kill H. pylori. Polyphenols in green tea may calm inflammation and help to strengthen the tissue that lines the stomach.

What to Eat When You Have an Ulcer
 Verywell / JRBee

Hot, spicy foods are usually avoided on an ulcer diet, but a review of studies on food and H. pylori found that some spices added for flavor also help kill the bacteria.

Fermented dairy foods, like kefir or yogurt, also show antibacterial effects. There's even evidence that some types of honey, including a rare oregano honey grown in Greece, kills H. pylori and other bacteria.

Recap

While dietary changes alone may not cure an ulcer, an ulcer diet may help with healing. Certain nutrients in foods, such as polyphenols and spices, can help repair the damaged tissue and fight bacteria that cause ulcers. Avoiding irritating foods can reduce symptoms and also speed up healing.

How It Works

An ulcer diet promotes healing and reduces irritation to the stomach lining and the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine that attaches to the stomach. It also limits excess acid production, which can aggravate an ulcer.

There are no strict rules about which foods to eat, but try to add as many foods as you can from the best choices list. Definitely avoid foods that make you feel worse or that trigger acid production and reflux.

Eating enough protein is also important. While your ulcer is healing, aim for about 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight. That means about 3 ounces per day for a 140-pound woman, and 4 ounces per day for a 200-pound man.

The rest of your calories should come from a balanced diet that includes whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. More fiber may lower the risk of ulcers, but one Korean study found that high-fiber diets lowered the risk of peptic ulcer disease in women but not men. It's a good idea to ask your healthcare provider about fiber intake.

Recap

The ulcer diet is based on foods that give you the right amounts of key nutrients, while avoiding foods likely to irritate your stomach. It also taps into the power of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory elements that are naturally found in certain foods.

Duration

You should stay on an ulcer diet until your healthcare provider tells you your ulcer is completely healed, and then go back to your normal way of eating. But if you feel better while on the diet or you have risk factors for ulcers, like smoking, this way of eating may be worth continuing—even if in a modified way.

What to Eat

Choose These Foods
  • Fruits

  • Vegetables

  • Legumes

  • Lean meats like skinless poultry and lean beef

  • Fish and seafood

  • Eggs

  • Whole soy foods like tofu or tempeh

  • Fermented dairy foods like kefir or yogurt

  • Healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, and nuts

  • Whole and cracked grains

  • Green tea

  • Herbs and spices (mild; fresh or dried)

Avoid These Foods
  • Alcohol

  • Coffee (regular, decaf)

  • Caffeinated foods and drinks

  • Milk or cream

  • Fatty meats

  • Fried or high-fat foods

  • Heavily spiced foods

  • Salty foods

  • Citrus fruits and juices

  • Tomatoes/tomato products

  • Chocolate

Best Choices

Fruits: Any fresh or frozen fruits contain helpful fiber and antioxidants. Berries, apples, grapes, and pomegranates are among the best choices for healing polyphenols. If citrus fruits or juices like orange or grapefruit trigger reflux, avoid them.

Vegetables: Leafy greens, bright red and orange vegetables, and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale) are packed with vitamins and antioxidants that are especially good for your overall health and healing. Avoid spicy peppers and tomatoes, or products made with them, if they give you reflux. Limit raw vegetables because they are harder to digest.

Lean proteins: Skinless poultry, lean beef like sirloin or tenderloin, fish, eggs, tofu, tempeh, dry beans, and peas are excellent sources of low-fat protein. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines provide omega-3 fats, which can reduce inflammation and may be helpful in preventing another ulcer.

Fermented dairy: Products like kefir and Greek yogurt provide probiotics (helpful bacteria) along with protein, so they're good choices.

Breads and grains: Whole grain breads, and whole or cracked grains like oats, quinoa, farro, millet, or sorghum, are good sources of fiber to include in your diet.

Herbs and spices: You can freely use most mild herbs and spices, because they're sources of antioxidants. Best bets include turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and garlic, which have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. For a sweetener, try to use honey instead of sugar.

Foods to Limit

Alcohol: All alcohol is a stomach irritant and will delay healing. Avoid wine, beer, and spirits.

Caffeine: You should cut back or stop drinking coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas. They can increase stomach acid production.

Milk: There was a time when milk was used in treating ulcers, but research has found that it increases stomach acid. It's best to avoid it.

Certain meats: Skip any highly seasoned meats, lunch meats, sausages, and fried or fatty meats and proteins.

High-fat foods: Try to avoid large amounts of added fats, which can increase stomach acid and trigger reflux. You may need to avoid gravy, cream soups, and salad dressings, but healthy fats on the list are OK.

Spicy foods: You may want to skip anything that is "hot," such as chili peppers, horseradish, black pepper, and sauces and condiments that contain them.

Salty foods: Researchers have found that salty foods may promote the growth of H. pylori. Pickles, olives, and other brined or fermented vegetables are high in salt and linked to a higher risk of H. pylori ulcers.

Chocolate: Chocolate can increase stomach acid production, and some people find that it triggers reflux symptoms.

Recap

Many grains, fruits, and vegetables add antioxidants and fiber that help to reduce ulcer symptoms. Fermented dairy, like yogurt, offers both protein and probiotics. Try to avoid any alcoholic beverages, and most foods that are salty, spicy, or high in fat.

Recommended Timing

Try to eat five or six small meals each day, rather than three large ones. Stomach acid is produced every time you eat, but large meals require much more of it for digestion, which can be irritating.

Finish eating at least three hours before bedtime, and try to stay upright for a few hours after your last bite for improved digestion and less acid reflux.

Take Your Time

Be gentle on your system while your ulcer is healing by chewing your food well and eating slowly.

Cooking Tips

Stick to lower-fat cooking methods like roasting, braising, and grilling instead of frying. Also, limit your use of butter and oils when you cook, as these can be harder to digest.

Modifications

In some cases, ulcers occur when you have celiac disease or inflammatory bowel diseases. Make sure to stay on any special diet you use to manage those conditions while you're following the ulcer diet.

For celiac disease, that means avoiding grains with gluten, such as wheat, rye, and barley, and taking care to read food labels for sources of hidden gluten.

For inflammatory bowel diseases, this may mean avoiding the milk sugars in lactose-based foods, staying away from carbonated beverages, and choosing lower-fiber foods.

Considerations

Other factors may come into play when using the ulcer diet, and they could affect your overall health.

General Nutrition

An ulcer diet should not harm your complete nutritional status. As long as you maintain good variety in your diet, you can still get the nutrients you need from other foods when you stop eating the ones that irritate your ulcer.

If you're trying to add more polyphenol-rich foods and fiber to your diet, and you cut back on fatty foods, an ulcer diet may be even more nutritious than your regular diet.

Practicality

It should be fairly easy to stick with an ulcer diet when you're preparing your own meals at home. It may be harder to stay on track when you're traveling, attending parties, or celebrating holidays. If you can't pass up that glass of wine or piece of chocolate cake, make it a small one.

Energy and Health

With fast food, chips, and alcohol off-limits, you might find that you're eating healthier, feeling better, and maybe even dropping some weight.

Call your healthcare provider if you have stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting that lasts longer than a few days. Ulcers can be serious if they cause internal bleeding. An ulcer diet may help, but your healthcare provider should determine your overall treatment plan.

Summary

Foods by themselves don't cause stomach ulcers, and there is more than one possible reason for why you may have them. The foods you choose, though, can make a big difference in how you feel and how quickly they heal. The ulcer diet offers options to improve your overall health and nutrition while reducing your ulcer risk.

A Word From Verywell

Living with an ulcer can be as distressing as it is uncomfortable, and it's hard at first to avoid favorite foods that make the problem worse. But the foods in the ulcer diet are carefully chosen to help your body heal and lower your risk of new ulcers. Let your healthcare provider know if you're using the diet so that it's a part of the overall treatment plan.

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Article Sources
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