The most important foods to avoid for acid reflux can vary from person to person. Most food sensitivities tend to be highly individual and acid reflux is no exception. Body type, stomach chemistry, and even the time can influence whether that slice of pizza will sit just fine or ruin your day.
The best diets for health conditions can usually be adapted to fit these individual needs. There are, however, certain foods that seem to be consistently irritating and are best left out of any acid reflux diet. The mere mention of coffee, colas, or fried foods can have acid reflux sufferers reaching for the antacids. Only a precious few can enjoy a slice of garlic bread without paying for it later. Why is it that some foods universally get the gastronomic thumbs-down? The answer relates, at least in part, to the underlying mechanics of acid reflux.
Acid Reflux Explained
Between the stomach and the esophagus sits a thin, one-way valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When all is working as it should be, this little muscle protects the esophagus from irritating gastric juices, while still allowing the passage of food and fluids into the stomach for digestion.
When the LES malfunctions, the harsh, acidic contents of the stomach are able to leak back up into the esophagus, resulting in the familiar burning sensation of heartburn. Most people have experienced heartburn at some point, but when symptoms become chronic, it could indicate a larger problem.
Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is characterized by abnormal levels of stomach acid entering the esophagus. Over time, this can lead to esophagitis, a chronic irritation of the esophagus. When this occurs, even foods that normally would not pose a problem can cause pain and discomfort.
How Diet Affects Acid Reflux
Many illnesses link to a poor diet. While a disease like GERD is not entirely diet-related, certain biological mechanisms make some foods more likely to set off acid reflux attacks. The foods you eat can interact with the LES in a number of ways.
- Relaxing the LES: Because the LES is the gatekeeper, any foods that reduce its effectiveness will contribute to acid reflux. Greasy or fatty foods may coat and weigh down the LES, while very strong foods such as peppermint, onions, and garlic contain compounds that weaken the muscle itself
- Increasing stomach acidity: Coffee, tea, alcohol, and cola drinks have an acidifying effect on the gastric juices. The more acidic the stomach contents are, the more irritating they will be during acid reflux attacks.
- Bloating the stomach: Carbonated beverages and other foods that cause pressure within the stomach will tend to increase the amount of acid that is pushed into the esophagus.
- Prolonging the attack: Some foods, such as dairy products, will encourage stomach acid to adhere to the esophageal lining. Others, usually those with a high fat content, take longer to digest. Either mechanism is likely to increase the amount of time the esophagus is exposed to acid, leading to heightened sensitivity and irritation.
Foods to Avoid for Acid Reflux
Typically, the foods most likely to trigger acid reflux attacks do so by a combination of mechanisms. These foods tend to cause problems in the highest number of GERD sufferers, independent of other factors. A coffee with cream, for example, will relax the LES and increase stomach acidity, as well as prolonging the length of irritating contact. For this reason, many of the following are considered universal foods to avoid for acid reflux:
- Cola beverages
- Coffee and tea, even decaffeinated
- Alcoholic drinks, especially beer
- Dairy products
- Onions and garlic
- Fast food
Foods That Irritate Reflux Esophagitis
For years, the advice acid reflux sufferers received are that peppers, citrus fruits, and tomatoes were foods to avoid for acid reflux. It is, indeed, common for GERD patients to experience pain and discomfort after eating these foods, but for a different reason than other irritants. Research suggests that these foods usually cause irritation mainly in individuals whose esophageal tissue was previously damaged by long-term acid reflux and are not usually problematic by themselves.
Life without GERD
In most cases, acid reflux can be effectively managed by a combination of diet and lifestyle modifications and, if necessary, medical intervention. Once you have your acid reflux under control, you can happily enjoy a wide variety of tasty, healthful foods without fear of heartburn pain.