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Managing Heartburn Triggered By Food


Updated October 18, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Some days, it seems like no matter what you eat, you get heartburn. Before I was diagnosed with GERD, it felt like the only thing that didn't cause heartburn symptoms was water. This sort of situation can be very frustrating.

Many people can trace at least some of their heartburn episodes to what they ate. There may be foods they can never eat because heartburn occurs every time they do. Then there are some foods they can eat if they either don't eat them very often or only eat them in small amounts. And then there are the foods that are usually pretty safe. Sometimes, it's how or when they eat, rather than what they eat, that triggers the unpleasant symptoms.

The first step in learning how diet affects the likelihood that you will experience heartburn is to consider the specific impact that certain foods have on your body. Some foods affect the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), relaxing it so it either doesn't close properly or opens when it shouldn't. Other foods can increase stomach acid production, which may lead to damage on the esophagus if stomach contents are refluxed into the esophagus.

These food lists demonstrate which relax the LES and which produce more stomach acid and gas.

Foods that can relax the LES:

  • Fried (greasy) foods
  • High fat meats
  • Butter and margarine
  • Mayonnaise
  • Creamy sauces
  • Salad dressings
  • Whole-milk dairy products
  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • Caffeinated beverages (e.g. soft drinks, coffee, tea, cocoa)

Foods that may stimulate acid production and increase heartburn:

  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Alcohol
  • Spicy foods
  • Black pepper
  • Citrus fruit and juices (e.g. orange, grapefruit)
  • Tomato juice

A partial list of foods that are safe for heartburn sufferers to eat:

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Baked potatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Peas
  • Lean ground beef
  • Lean pork tenderloin
  • Lean pork chops
  • Lean turkey
  • Lean ham
  • Skinless chicken breasts
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Low-fat cheeses (in moderation)
  • Bread
  • Corn bread
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Decaffeinated, non-carbonated beverages
  • Non-citrus fruit juices
  • Water

Everyone is different, so a food diary, food journal or heartburn record or log can help you determine which specific foods are problematic for you. For example, you may find some of the foods listed as those people should avoid are ok for you to eat, whereas some of the foods in the "safe" list may be foods you need to avoid. By keeping a record for a week or two, you'll be able to identify the foods that are safe for you.

While what we eat can have a big impact on whether or not we experience heartburn, how and when we eat can also increase or decrease the odds of experiencing the burn. Try these strategies:

  • Eat 5 or 6 smaller meals during the day instead of 3 larger ones. Large meals increases pressure in the stomach and pressure against the LES muscle. Eating five or six small meals instead of three larger ones helps reduce the pressure.

  • If one of your meals is typically larger than the others, try eating that meal for lunch instead of supper.

  • Avoid late-night snacking. Eating shortly before going to bed can increase the likelihood that you will experience heartburn because of increased stomach acid levels created right before you lay down.

  • Wait at least two to three hours after eating to go to bed. Lying down with a full stomach can cause stomach contents to press harder against the LES, increasing the chances of refluxed food.

  • Sleep with your head and shoulders elevated, possibly with the help of a wedge pillow. Lying flat allows stomach contents to press against the LES. Also, having the head higher than the stomach allows gravity to keep stomach contents where they belong.

  • Sleep on your left side. Studies have shown that this position aids digestion and helps with the removal of stomach acid. Sleeping on the right side has been shown to worsen heartburn.

Having a good recipe is also important. When cooking, preparing or planning meals, avoid the ingredients that may trigger heartburn. I have many favorite recipes, some I remember from my childhood, and others I came across as an adult. After being diagnosed with GERD more than 20 years ago, I feared I would have to give up those dishes. Over the years, however, I found ways to adapt and modify recipes so that I could still eat those old favorites. Often, it is just a matter of swapping out a reflux-producing ingredient with one that I knew was safe for me to eat.

Some recipe categories to try:

Do you have a favorite recipe that is heartburn-friendly? You can share it with others by clicking on one of the links below.

On a final note, remember to talk to your doctor if your heartburn is frequent (2 or more times a week) or worsens. You could be suffering from a more serious condition, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It is important not to dismiss your symptoms as 'just' heartburn because untreated GERD can lead to serious complications, such as esophageal ulcers, esophageal strictures, Barrett's esophagus, and esophageal cancer. It is, therefore, important to not self-diagnose, and inform your doctor of any change in symptoms or severity of your symptoms.

Related Resources:


American Journal of Gastroenterology, "Updated Guidelines for the diagnosis and Treatment of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease." The American College of Gastroenterology.

Magee, Elaine: Tell Me What to Eat If I Have Acid Reflux. Book-mart Press: New Page Books, 2001, ISBN: 1564145743.

Peikin, M.D., Steven R.. Gastrointestinal Health. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.

Sklar, Jill and Cohen, Annabel: Eating for Acid Reflux: Marlowe & Company; Imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc. 2003, ISBN: 1569244928.

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