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Why Do Some Foods Cause Heartburn?

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Updated January 27, 2011

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

Question: Why Do Some Foods Cause Heartburn?
It seems a fact of life: If you suffer from heartburn, there probably are some foods that lead to heartburn for you. Why do some foods cause heartburn and others don't?
Answer:

There are a couple reasons why some foods cause heartburn.

Heartburn may occur when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the valve between your esophagus and your stomach, relaxes when it shouldn't, and food and stomach acid comes back up into your esophagus.

The following are examples of 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)

Heartburn may also occur when the stomach produces too much acid, and this backs up into the esophagus. Foods that may stimulate acid production and increase heartburn are:

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

Of course, everyone is different, so keeping a food diary will be helpful in determining which specific foods are problematic for you.

It is also important to remember that when you eat and how much you eat can also play a role in the occurrence of heartburn. Eating too close to bedtime, or eating too large of a meal later at night, can contribute to nighttime heartburn. For more information, you can read about preventing nighttime heartburn.

Preventing heartburn when eating isn't just about what foods you eat -- it also has much to do with how you prepare your food and how you eat it. You can follow some meal planning tips to prevent heartburn.

Source:

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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