A gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) diet is an important part of the treatment for both occasional heartburn (also known as acid reflux) and GERD, which is a more chronic condition.
Symptoms occur when this specialized muscle weakens and allows stomach acid to splash up into the esophagus. These symptoms include heartburn, chest discomfort, and bitter fluid flowing up into the mouth. Chest discomfort can occur. If the stomach juice trickles into the breathing tubes, hoarseness, cough, and even shortness of breath can occur. This entire problem is called GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease). A number of factors, including certain foods, may cause the lower esophageal muscle to relax, causing GERD.
There is no one-size-fits-all GERD diet, so it’s important that you experiment with the diet to identify and eliminate foods that trigger the burning sensation in your chest or throat.
First, a quick refresher: Acid reflux happens when your stomach contents come back up into your esophagus, causing heartburn. When the condition is long-lasting and serious, it’s called gastroesophageal reflux disease—and it’s time to do something about it. Here’s how you can kick-start your GERD diet plan and reduce symptoms.
This article explains what GERD is and its causes, which foods you should eat and avoid, as well as a sample menu for a GERD diet.
Benefits Of GERD Diet
GERD happens when the sphincter muscle at the bottom of your esophagus gets weak and stays too relaxed when it shouldn’t. That allows acid from your stomach to back up into your esophagus, causing ongoing symptoms such as heartburn, cough, and swallowing issues.
In more serious cases, GERD can cause vomiting, respiratory problems, narrowing of your esophagus, and increased risk of esophageal cancer. The GERD diet helps your lower esophageal sphincter muscle work better and stay closed after you eat, so you’ll have fewer of these issues.
To achieve this, the GERD diet focuses on avoiding foods that research has shown are more likely to trigger reflux and your symptoms. These are mainly foods that are acidic and/or high in fat. (Note, however, that avoiding trigger foods may not completely prevent GERD symptoms).
In addition to increasing stomach acid, high-fat meals delay gastric emptying and cause the muscles in the lower esophagus to relax, leading to acid reflux. Foods that are very acidic can be especially irritating to your stomach and esophagus. Increasing fiber is also recommended.
In a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, people with heartburn who had low-fiber diets were given 15 grams of a psyllium fiber supplement each day. After starting the extra fiber, they had increased esophageal sphincter pressure, fewer times that acid backed up, and fewer heartburn symptoms.
A 2016 study published in Diseases of the Esophagus found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with a lower risk of GERD.2 That makes sense because the Mediterranean diet is known for being lower in fatty meats and processed foods, and higher in seafood, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
In addition to improving your symptoms, this way of eating may lead to some weight loss. Being overweight puts you at a much higher risk of GERD, and much research has found that losing weight is one of the best strategies to prevent the condition.
Eating Guide for a GERD Diet
Foods To Avoid
Certain foods and beverages can relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) muscle, which acts as a gate between the esophagus and stomach.
When this muscle is relaxed at the wrong time, stomach acid can travel back up through the esophagus, causing heartburn.
Therefore, you may find symptom relief by avoiding or limiting foods and beverages that relax the LES muscle or irritate the esophagus lining.
- Spicy foods and condiments: Dishes, sauces, and seasonings made with hot peppers, such as habanero, cayenne, jalapeños, and chili peppers.
- Citrus fruits: lemons, limes, grapefruits, mandarin oranges, tangerines
- Fried foods: doughnuts, french fries, onion rings, funnel cake, etc.
- Caffeine: coffee, tea, energy drinks
- Other items: alcohol, chocolate, tomato juice, soda
What to Eat
The GERD diet should be tailored to your taste preferences but focused on foods that are low in acid and fat, and prone to induce irritation. In addition to choosing more compliant foods and eliminating or reducing non-compliant ones, it’s important to monitor your portions, especially if you’re overweight.
Fruits: Citrus fruits like oranges or grapefruits, and for some people pineapples, are likely to trigger reflux because of their acid content. All other fruits are good choices unless they don’t agree with you.
Vegetables: Avoid tomatoes, tomato sauce, and spicy peppers, and be aware that some people note increased GERD symptoms after consuming onions or garlic too.
All other vegetables are good choices and can help increase fiber.
Whole and cracked grains: Oats, brown rice, quinoa, farro, 100% whole wheat, wheat bran, and all other whole grains are good sources of fiber. Eat a small serving with each meal.
Dairy foods: Limit whole milk, cream, ice cream, and full-fat yogurt. Dairy foods can increase stomach acid, and high-fat foods can relax the esophageal sphincter muscle. Choose small servings of low-fat versions or non-dairy milk products instead.
Meats: Avoid high-fat and heavily-spiced meats like bacon, sausages, hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken, salami, pastrami, pepperoni, etc. Choose lean cuts of beef or pork, skinless poultry, and seafood.
Fats: Use healthy fats like olive oil and avocado in moderation. Avoid fried foods like French fries and greasy foods or gravies made with meat fat.
Spices, herbs, and seasonings: Stick to fresh or dried herbs like basil, parsley, oregano or thyme, and avoid potent/hot spices like cinnamon, curry powder, chili powder, cayenne pepper, or hot paprika. Mint, especially peppermint, can be a trigger for many people.
Chocolate: Chocolate increases stomach acid, so it’s best to avoid any candies, desserts, or baked goods that contain it (that goes for real hot chocolate, too).
Beverages: Plain or fruit-infused water or caffeine-free herbal teas can be soothing. Avoid peppermint or spearmint, but licorice or fennel tea may help to calm heartburn and heal the mucosal layer in your esophagus if it’s irritated.
Avoid coffee and alcohol, which increase acid and irritate the stomach and esophagus.5 Many people also find carbonated beverages bothersome, whether they have caffeine or not, so steer clear of those as well.