A woman struggling with GERD symptoms. Avoiding certain foods with GERD will help you reduce your symptoms.

If you’re experiencing chronic heartburn symptoms, you may have acid reflux disease or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). While neither GERD nor acid reflux are life-threatening diseases, they are life-changing. In honor of World Health Day this month, let’s talk about how to manage the symptoms that come with GERD and acid reflux disease.

Both diseases can affect eating and sleeping habits. Some people even develop an intolerance for certain foods that cause symptoms to flare up. The good news is you can better manage your symptoms if you are aware of which foods can cause flare-ups.

Acidic Foods

Certain foods have high levels of natural acid. In cooking, these acidic foods are used to lighten up otherwise fat-heavy dishes. Acids also work as a natural tenderizer when applied to meats. When cooked, these foods help flavor the entire dish for delicious results.

However, when consumed on an empty stomach, acidic foods tend to irritate the esophagus and lead to heartburn or acid reflux symptoms. Some of these acidic foods include fruits, vegetables and spices like:

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes

 

Foods that use tomatoes in sauces are another culprit for acid reflux symptoms. Pizza, pasta, stews, and soups tend to include all three of these ingredients.

Citrus fruits are another type of highly acidic food. If you want to avoid triggering GERD or acid reflux, you should avoid the following:

  • Grapefruit
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Oranges
  • Pineapple

Keep in mind that these foods do not directly cause GERD, but they often cause symptoms of acid reflux and heartburn. Many of these foods are good for your general health, but when eaten excessively or on a mostly empty stomach, they can cause problems.

High Fat Foods

When fat enters the stomach, it triggers a release of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK), which can cause the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) to relax. Chronic relaxing or malfunctioning of the LES is what causes GERD. With the LES left more open, the stomach contents can reflux back up the esophagus and cause discomfort.

A graph that shows how GERD symptoms occur

The other problem with high-fat foods is they require more time to break down during digestion. In order to help the digestive process, the CCK hormone keeps fatty foods in the stomach for a longer period of time. This is a natural reaction, but when combined with the relaxed LES, the risk of acid reflux symptoms increases.

Below is a list of several types of high-fat foods you should avoid when managing acid reflux or GERD symptoms.

  • Fried food
  • Whole-fat or 2% milk
  • Cream cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Ice cream
  • Potato chips
  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Full fat sour cream
  • Creamy salad dressing (ranch flavored)
  • Sauces and dips
  • Bacon
  • Sirloin
  • Prime rib
  • Chicken skin
  • Creamy soups
  • Pudding
  • Creamed vegetables
  • Bologna
  • Sausage
  • Fatty meats

Fried foods are especially bad due to their high levels of saturated fat. You should not eliminate all fats from your diet because your body does need fat to work properly. Some healthy sources of fat include avocados, nuts, and olive oil.

While you do not have to eliminate all of these foods from your diet immediately, the more you can limit and monitor fatty foods, the better. Paying attention to your fat intake will also help you avoid future health problems like obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Spicy Foods

While there is not necessarily a direct medical cause between spicy foods and symptoms of GERD, people who experience acid reflux and heartburn often blame spicy food. What we have yet to mention is the link between acid reflux and the kind of food a person eats depends on the individual.

Some people may experience fewer heartburn symptoms with spicy, acidic, or fatty foods than other people. If spicy food does trigger acid reflux for you, then you should avoid spicy foods such as:

  • Black pepper
  • Chili
  • Curry
  • Hot peppers (jalapenos, habaneros)
  • Salsa

 

Other foods/drinks

Alcohol

Just as fatty foods cause the LES to relax, alcohol use can do the same thing. However, some people will do better with alcohol use and heartburn than others. 

Also, certain types of alcohol can create more stomach acid and increase the risk of acid reflux. Occasional alcohol use usually will not increase your symptoms, but frequent or constant use will. If you use alcohol excessively or compulsively, it can damage your esophagus and cause more pain during reflux.

Coffee

While the exact reason why coffee causes acid reflux is in debate, the fact is that some people experience reflux after drinking coffee. Some studies show that drinking coffee relaxes the LES. Other studies say that caffeine causes acid reflux. And other studies still show no correlation.

Carbonated Beverages

Soft drinks not only relax the LES but also increase stomach acid levels. This may be due to the caffeine in popular cola products which can affect the LES and trigger acid reflux.

Tea

Due to the debate of caffeine causing GERD or acid reflux symptoms, it may be worth avoiding certain types of tea. Black, white, and green teas are natural sources of caffeine and may increase your risk of symptoms.

Decaffeinated herbal teas may help you manage symptoms of GERD and acid reflux. However, if you do use herbal tea, avoid mint-based teas. Mint, peppermint, spearmint, and other mints can relax the LES and increase your risk for symptoms. 

How can I Prevent my Symptoms of GERD?

As you can see, there are many types of foods to avoid if you have GERD or acid reflux disease. However, you may or may not experience symptoms after eating one of these foods as each case is different. This list of foods is meant to give you general guidelines of foods to avoid.

With that being said, the most reliable way to know which foods you should avoid is to keep a food journal. Pay attention to what you eat, then record whether or not you experience symptoms after. 

You should also pay attention to which situations lead to your symptoms. For instance, do you experience symptoms in the morning before you’ve eaten, or after a large lunch? Or, perhaps you notice symptoms at night after eating a late dinner or dessert.

If you have more questions about preventing GERD or acid reflux symptoms, talk with your doctor. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may give you a prescription to help soothe your heartburn.

Prescriptions usually include histamine-2 blockers (H2), proton pump inhibitors (PPI), and promotility agents. These are usually short-term prescriptions to relieve symptoms while you make dietary adjustments.

When to See a General Surgeon

Because GERD and acid reflux are not usually serious conditions, it is possible to manage it on your own. However, if these conditions do not improve, they can lead to esophagus cancer. 

If you notice that your symptoms keep getting worse, then it is time to see a doctor. Other warning signs for severe GERD and acid reflux include chest pain, jaw pain, or arm pain. Also, if you experience shortness of breath, you should visit with a doctor or surgeon as soon as possible. Additionally, if your symptoms do not improve after taking medication for two weeks, you may need surgical treatment.

Surgical Treatments for GERD and Acid Reflux

With advances in robotic and laparoscopic surgery, treating GERD is easier than ever. At The Surgical Clinic, we offer several types of surgical procedures to strengthen the weakened LES and other causes of GERD.

One of our providers, Dr. Trudie Goers, is board-certified in general surgery and specializes in minimally invasive gastrointestinal repair. If you need treatment for GERD or acid reflux, Dr. Goers would be happy to meet with you.

To learn more about GERD and the surgical procedures we offer, visit the Virtual GERD Center here on our website.

You don’t have to live with acid reflux forever. The providers at The Surgical Clinics of Middle Tennessee are here to help you get the care that you need. Visit one of our many locations across the Greater Nashville Area, including Mt Juliet, Downtown, Franklin, Cool Springs, Hermitage, as well as Columbia, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, and Smyrna.

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