Heartburn comes in many shapes and sizes, and not all causes are the same. Certain foods stimulate stomach acid production, while others relax the valve between the esophagus and stomach, allowing acidic stomach contents to pass into the esophagus. This is especially true if you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Making changes to your diet is much more effective at addressing heartburn symptoms than medication. The topic of nutrition is complex and best addressed by looking into what, when, how much, and how often we eat. It’s difficult to address all of those factors at once, so let’s start with some diet tips that you can follow to minimize symptoms.
Avoid foods that relax your lower esophageal sphincter (LES)
Many foods lead to a relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, which is the valve that normally prevents food and acid from moving up into the esophagus. If your LES is damaged or weakened, which happens naturally with age, reflux can occur.
Chocolate contains an ingredient called methylxanthine which has been shown to relax the smooth muscle in the LES and increase reflux. Peppermint and mint-flavored foods like chewing gum and breath mints also trigger acid reflux because they relax the muscle that controls backflow between the stomach and esophagus. Alcohol is also a common trigger for heartburn, as it opens the LES and allows the acid into the esophagus.
Avoid foods and beverages that cause gastric distension
Carbonated beverages cause your stomach to swell, which puts pressure on the esophageal sphincter. Garlic, raw onions, and cruciferous vegetables can cause gas, distending the stomach and promoting reflux.
The key to avoiding heartburn from these foods is to reduce stomach pressure. Research shows that increased fiber intake, specifically in the form of fruits and vegetables, may protect against GERD.
Avoid foods that increase acidity
Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, but certain types can trigger GERD symptoms. Highly acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus, and juices made from them can increase the acidity of your stomach contents and cause heartburn.
Avoid high-fat foods that slow stomach emptying
Foods high in fat can cause the LES to relax, allowing more stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. These foods also delay stomach emptying, so there is more of an opportunity for a distended stomach. These factors combine to make heartburn more likely.
Common offenders are foods that hit several of the heartburn-causing marks. Onion rings are high in fat and distend the stomach, so they’re more likely to cause symptoms than onions that haven’t been fried.
An anti-heartburn diet addresses the cause of reflux, while medicine only lowers acidity. Research has linked onions, acidic foods, and carbonated drinks to heartburn, but those triggers aren't universal. A glass of red wine may not be a big deal on its own, but if you also have tomato sauce on your pasta and a glass of orange juice in the morning on an empty stomach, it could cause your symptoms to flare up.
No one specific diet will work for every person, as the topic of GERD has complex causes. The best way to determine your ideal diet is to track foods that trigger your heartburn. Keeping a log of all meals, drinks, and activities throughout your day will allow you to determine which foods and activities aggravate your reflux and which ones help alleviate recurrences.