12 Foods That Can Make Heartburn Worse
Modify your diet and prevent heartburn by avoiding or limiting the most common food triggers, including coffee and avocado.
Foods that can trigger heartburn
An awful acidic taste that travels from your mouth to your throat. A burning sensation that grows in your chest. A hoarseness or hacking cough that sometimes occurs after you eat or at night. While these types of symptoms can be caused by a number of different things, they also can be symptoms of heartburn.
Heartburn symptoms can be triggered by eating patterns or specific foods, particularly those that are acidic. It’s caused by acid reflux, which is when the acid in your stomach backs up into the esophagus, causing pain. Chronic acid reflux and heartburn can be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a more serious condition. (Here’s how to tell the difference between acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD.)
For heartburn relief, it’s a good idea to try to avoid or limit the consumption of these 10 common foods.
Caffeine in coffee, tea, and colas can give some people more than an energy boost. According to Gale Pearson, RD, a registered dietitian with Tidewater Physicians in Newport News, Virginia, some stimulants like caffeine can relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which causes it to not close properly. “The stomach contents leak back into the esophagus and the backflow of the acid from the stomach cause heartburn,” says Pearson. “Since this is how America stays awake and responds to stress, no one wants to hear that they should be limited to relieve heartburn.”
A significant amount of serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter) is actually located in the gut and chocolate’s release of this neurotransmitter from the cells of the intestines may cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, and according to 2014 study in the journal Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine. This permits the stomach to accept acid to flow back up to the esophagus, which can trigger heartburn. Note that those in the study suffered from carcinoma of the esophagus.
If you are heartburn-prone it’s best to avoid spicy foods. If you do eat them, try to stay active for at least two hours after eating. This helps keep the food in the stomach and prevents it from going back up into the esophagus. (In other words, avoid lying down for 2-3 hours after eating, which may be helpful regardless of the type of food you eat.)
Salty foods or table salt may increase the likelihood of acid reflux. In a 2013 study, published in the journal Gastroenterology Research and Practice, researchers observed 268 people with newly diagnosed GERD and 269 sex- and age-matched people without GERD. The researchers looked for dietary contributors that could increase GERD risk. The findings revealed a high intake of meat, oils, salt and calcium were each associated with a higher risk of the disease. (Here are signs of heartburn that may actually be allergies.)
Lemons and oranges
Citrus fruits, juices, and even marinades contain a lot of citric acid. Usually the stomach lining can handle the acid, but the esophagus can be sensitive to it. If the opening of the esophagus at the top of the stomach relaxes, it can allow the citric acid in the stomach to come into contact with the esophagus and cause both acid reflux and heartburn.
Kate Patton, RD, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute in Cleveland, says “Pizza can be one of the worst foods because it contains many heartburn culprits.” She adds: “Tomato sauce is highly acidic, and cheese is high in fat, which slows the stomach from emptying and exacerbates heartburn.” Ordering a pizza with sausage, pepperoni, garlic, and onions, can really pack a fiery burn. (Stop ignoring these 6 silent signs of acid reflux.)
Peppermint can soothe an upset stomach because it relaxes stomach muscles and has a calming and numbing effect. However, peppermint also relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, which means peppermint can make symptoms of heartburn worse. “Mint, including peppermint and spearmint oil, relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, which may cause digestive fluids to leak back into the esophagus,” says David Nico, PhD, holistic nutrition, of DrHealthnut.com and author of Diet Diagnosis.
Burgers are a popular food, especially in the American diet. Besides the fact that they relax the lower esophageal sphincter, they are also high in saturated fat, which can slow down digestion. According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, a steady diet of high-fat foods and fried foods can lower LES pressure and slow down the process of stomach emptying. This can increase the risk of acid reflux. (Learn how the Mediterranean diet is better for your heartburn and GERD.)
In addition to pizza, other foods that contain a lot of tomatoes like salsa, spaghetti, and sauces are naturally highly acidic and potential offenders for those prone to heartburn. These sauces can also be difficult to digest because they’re often paired with onions, which can also cause heartburn.
Whole milk may not be an ideal beverage for some people who have heartburn. High-fat dairy products, such as whole milk and yogurt, can slow down digestion and may be an additional issue for those with lactose intolerance. (Here’s the best sleep position for heartburn and other health conditions.)
Alcohol—in excess and even in moderation—can trigger heartburn. This can occur for several reasons such as the relaxing of the lower esophageal sphincter. In addition, alcohol can increase the amount of stomach acid that is produced. In particular, low-alcohol beverages, like beer and wine, can stimulate gastric acid secretion and gastrin release, thus, increasing heartburn risk. (Don’t miss these 8 important medical reasons why you should never ignore severe heartburn.)
Who hasn’t heard about the health benefits of the avocado? It’s chock full of nutrients and good-for-you monounsaturated fat. Although avocado is a high-fat food, and fat in avocados is good for you, it still slows down stomach emptying. This can make heartburn more likely.
Start a heartburn log
If you’re experiencing heartburn after eating, try to keep a food journal for a week. Keep track of the foods you eat, time of day, any activity and the symptoms you experienced after eating. Identifying the foods that trigger heartburn will help you plan out the best acid reflux diet for your health needs. Here’s why your liver may be in trouble if you take acid reflux meds.
- Gale Pearson, RD, a registered dietitian with Tidewater Physicians in Newport News, Virginia
- Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine: “Expression of serotonin receptors in human lower esophageal sphincter”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine International: “10 Tips to Prevent Acid Reflux”
- Gastroenterology Research and Practice: “Dietary Intake and Risk for Reflux Esophagitis: A Case-Control Study”
- Kate Patton, RD, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute in Cleveland
- David Nico, PhD, holistic nutrition, of DrHealthnut.com and author of Diet Diagnosis
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Diet Changes for GERD”
- American Journal of Gastroenterology: “Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease”
- Gut: “Alcohol and gastric acid secretion in humans”