Dieting to Manage Acid Reflux

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
January 20, 2022

For the 20% of Americans living with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), eating certain foods can cause frequent heartburn and other uncomfortable or painful symptoms of acid reflux. 

While there’s no specific “GERD diet”, in the past, healthcare providers recommended bland diets to help manage GERD.

Thankfully, we now know that people with GERD can continue to eat a variety of diverse and nutritious foods.

The key is to avoid your personal food triggers.

It can take some time to identify the foods that cause your symptoms, but it’s worth it, especially because some “foods to avoid” may not cause you any problems.

To help you get started on your personal GERD diet, in this article, I’ll first explain what GERD is.

Then I’ll discuss common foods to eat and ones to avoid if you have GERD.

Lastly, I’ll share other tips for a healthy diet if you have GERD and how to identify your triggers.

Always talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian if you need more help determining how best to eat with GERD.

What Is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) refers to chronic acid reflux, a condition in which stomach acid persistently leaks back up into the esophagus. 

Symptoms of acid reflux 

The main symptom of GERD (as well as acid reflux) is a burning sensation in the chest called heartburn.

This uncomfortable feeling can also occur in the throat and may worsen if bending over or lying down.

Other symptoms of acid reflux include:

  • Bitter, hot, sour, acidic, or unpleasant taste in the mouth
  • Regurgitation
  • Sore throat 
  • Hoarseness

Symptoms that can often be a specific sign of GERD are:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain that moves into your throat but doesn’t usually radiate to your shoulders, neck, or arms

Causes of acid reflux

Where the esophagus and stomach meet is a ring of muscles called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).

The LES relaxes and opens to let food into the stomach, then closes back up.

When the LES is weak or damaged, it can relax too much, allowing stomach acid to flow back up the esophagus and cause acid reflux. 

Certain lifestyle and diet habits can make acid reflux more likely.

These include:

  • Eating large meals
  • Eating spicy, fatty, or greasy foods
  • Eating acidic foods such as tomatoes or citrus
  • Eating shortly before bedtime
  • Drinking large amounts of caffeinated, alcoholic, or carbonated drinks
  • Chronic or significant stress
  • Smoking
  • Wearing tight-fitting clothes

The following health conditions are also associated with a greater risk of acid reflux:

  • Too much acid in the stomach
  • Delayed stomach emptying
  • Poor clearance of food or acid from the esophagus
  • Pregnancy
  • Hiatal hernia
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Foods to Eat

People living with GERD can enjoy many foods, and some foods may even help aid digestion and ease symptoms.

The following foods are usually safe and healthy to eat when you’re managing GERD.

Ginger

Drinking ginger tea, eating cooked ginger, or taking ginger supplements may help calm the digestive system and reduce symptoms of GERD.

Though it’s unclear why, ginger appears to decrease pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter and help the stomach empty faster.

Vegetables

Vegetables are a great source of fiber, which appears to help decrease heartburn and reflux.

People with GERD can enjoy a variety of vegetables, however, it’s often best to avoid onions and tomatoes.

These tend to be trigger foods for most people.

Oatmeal

Oatmeal is another source of fiber and may help to absorb excess stomach acid.

In addition to helping with GERD, fiber helps keep you fuller longer and supports a healthy digestive system.

Lean meats

Fatty meats—particularly red meat and processed meat like bacon and hotdogs—are common triggers for GERD.

It’s typically better to choose lean meats like skinless chicken and poultry. 

Seafood

Seafood is another excellent way to get protein if you have GERD.

Options such as salmon, Atlantic mackerel, lake trout, and sardines are also rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Non-citrus fruits

Consuming foods high in acid, such as citrus fruit, often contributes to the problem of acid reflux.

Researchers believe these foods cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax.

However, non-citrus fruits are usually fine to consume if you have GERD.

Options include watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, bananas, apples, and more.

Healthy fats

Eating high-fat foods is associated with a higher risk of acid reflux and GERD.

But not all fats are equal.

Eating a diet with moderate levels of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts, tofu, and fish (as opposed to a diet high in trans and saturated fats) may be beneficial. 

Foods to Avoid

Understanding which foods can trigger or exacerbate your acid reflux can help you avoid GERD’s uncomfortable symptoms.

While the list below highlights the most common food triggers for acid reflux, pay attention to how your body reacts to these foods.

You may be able to tolerate some of them.

High-fat foods 

Eating excessive amounts of saturated fats and trans fats found in red meat, dairy, processed foods (like baked goods), fried foods, margarine, and shortening is associated with an increased risk of acid reflux.

Citrus fruits

People who have GERD commonly point to grapefruit, oranges, and other citrus fruits as well as their juices as trigger foods. 

Tomatoes

Because of their acidic content, tomatoes are one of the more common triggers of acid reflux.

Garlic and onion

Both garlic and onion are known to relax the LES, which can cause acid reflux symptoms in many people.

Spicy foods

In general, the consumption of spicy foods can trigger symptoms of indigestion, including acid reflux.

Gastroenterologists often recommend avoiding spicy foods if you have acid reflux because it’s also known to relax the LES and delay stomach emptying, two common causes of acid reflux. 

Mint

Like garlic, onions, and spicy foods, mint is known to cause acid reflux by relaxing the LES.

Chocolate

Chocolate contains a chemical called methylxanthine, which has similar properties to caffeine.

Unfortunately, it also relaxes the LES, which can cause acid reflux.

Other Tips for a GERD Diet

In addition to avoiding certain foods, other lifestyle changes can help manage GERD symptoms.

Eat smaller meals more frequently 

Eating larger meals less often can increase the likelihood of stomach acid leaking into the esophagus, which can cause symptoms of acid reflux.

On the other hand, eating smaller meals throughout the day may help prevent reflux symptoms.

Avoid soda and carbonated beverages

Carbonated drinks like soda and seltzer appear to relax the LES.

That may explain why they’re known to trigger acid reflux in many people.

Limit alcohol intake 

Research shows that drinking alcohol, even in moderate amounts, can worsen symptoms of indigestion and acid reflux.

Alcoholic drinks appear to relax the LES, increase the production of stomach acid, and make it harder for the esophagus to get rid of acid.

Eat an earlier dinner

Dining earlier in the evening gives your body more time to digest before laying down, allowing gravity to help keep stomach acids where they belong—in the stomach.

But regardless of what time you eat dinner, waiting three hours before you lie down may help reduce symptoms.

Identifying GERD Triggers

Not everyone with GERD will experience the same food triggers, which is why it can be particularly useful to get to know which foods do—and don’t—cause uncomfortable symptoms for you.

Keeping a food diary

One of the easiest ways to identify your unique food triggers is to keep a food and symptom diary.

For one week, record what you eat at every meal and what symptoms, if any, you experience afterward.

Be detailed and make sure to include every ingredient as much as you can.

Reviewing the results of your diary with a medical provider can help you identify which foods may be especially triggering for you. 

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When to See a Doctor

Although almost everyone has acid reflux from time to time, if your symptoms become long-term (longer than two weeks) or, are accompanied by weight loss or loss of appetite, contact your healthcare provider.

They can determine if you have GERD and what, if any, lifestyle changes may help.

However, if you experience any of the below symptoms, seek emergency medical care:

  • Bloody vomit
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Black, tarry stool
  • Severe, constant stomach pain 
  • Difficulty swallowing that gets progressively worse
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Shortness of breath, sweating, or chest pain that radiates to the neck, jaw, or arm
  • Chest pain with stress or exertion
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What foods make GERD go away?
No specific foods make GERD go away, and everyone responds differently to different foods. However, in general, avoiding high-fat foods, citrus fruits, tomatoes, onion, chocolate, and caffeine tends to help prevent symptoms of GERD.
What foods help heal the esophagus?
Eating a diet rich in non-citrus fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean proteins may help keep the symptoms of acid reflux at bay and ease irritation of the esophagus.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.

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