Foods That Can Cause Acid Reflux

A woman with heartburn touching her chest in pain


Most people have experienced acid reflux or heartburn at some point in their lives. In fact, over 60 million people in the United State experience heartburn each month.

Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux (GER), happens when your stomach acid flows back into the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth and the stomach). 

This condition is caused by a weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring of muscle near the bottom of the esophagus. The LES serves as a barrier to prevent the contents of your stomach from flowing back into your esophagus. When the LES functions normally, it allows food to pass seamlessly to the stomach. When the LES relaxes too much or becomes weak, it allows food and digestive juices to flow back into the esophagus.

Symptoms of Acid Reflux

Acid reflux symptoms can vary depending on what you eat; the way your body reacts to one food may differ from the way it reacts to another. Symptoms of acid reflux include:

  • Heartburn (burning or pain in the chest)
  • Regurgitation (swallowed foods re-entering the mouth) or vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Chronic cough
  • Hoarseness (voice changes such as huskiness or scratchiness)

The best way to prevent symptoms of acid reflux is to avoid foods that may trigger it. Here are foods that may cause acid reflux


Sodas and other carbonated beverages are frequent causes of reflux. This is because the carbon dioxide in these fizzy drinks can cause gaseous distension of the stomach (bloating) which increases pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, leading to acid reflux.

Most sodas also contain acid (namely phosphoric acid and citric acid) and caffeine, which are common acid reflux triggers. Consuming carbonated beverages may lead to the onset of acid reflux symptoms and also increase a person's risk for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is when acid reflux happens repeatedly over time, potentially irritating the lining of your esophagus.

Citrus Fruits

Citrus fruits like limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruits, and pineapples naturally contain large amounts of citric acid, making them highly acidic. The acid present in citrus fruits can cause the LES to relax and trigger reflux symptoms. Berries also contain significant amounts. 

Some compounds in citrus fruits can also increase the risk of GERD by weakening the LES and slowing down the time it takes for your stomach to empty after eating.


Chocolate has methylxanthine, a chemical in cocoa trees whose effects resemble caffeine and can cause your LES to relax. Chocolate can also cause your intestines to release a large amount of serotonin, a chemical messenger often known as the “feel-good hormone.” Too much serotonin can trigger LES relaxation and cause reflux symptoms.

Chocolate also contains substances such as acidic cocoa powder, caffeine, theobromine, and fat, all of which can lead to reflux. 


Although tomatoes are packed with healthy nutrients, they contain malic and citric acid, which can exacerbate heartburn in people with acid reflux.

In addition to steering clear of tomatoes, you may also want to consider limiting your intake of tomato-based products, such as tomato juice, marinara sauce, and ketchup.

Spicy Foods

Ingredients such as peppers, sriracha, Tabasco sauce, and chilies are packed with flavor and can add a kick to your favorite foods. However, a 2021 study found that spicy foods were the primary trigger of acid reflux and GERD symptoms. Of the 85 people surveyed, 62% identified spicy foods as their main trigger of acid reflux.

Fried Foods

Fried foods are often harder for your stomach to digest, which can trigger heartburn. Common examples of fried foods include french fries, chicken nuggets, donuts, and corn dogs. 

Some research suggests that fried foods can stimulate the release of esophageal irritants, such as bile salts and cholecystokinin, a gastrointestinal hormone that stimulates the digestion of fat and protein. This can promote LES relaxation and contribute to heartburn.


Alcohol consumption can cause direct damage to the esophagus and affect the functioning of the LES. The more you drink alcohol, the higher your risk of developing GERD becomes. Additionally, alcohol can dehydrate you, which can make acid reflux symptoms worse.

Healthcare providers often recommend avoiding alcohol completely if you have acid reflux flare-ups. If you are unable to abstain from drinking alcohol, you may find it helpful to limit yourself to one alcoholic beverage a day and avoid using acidic mixers like orange juice and carbonated drinks. 

Late-Night Snacks

Eating a meal or snacks before bed can magnify acid reflux flare-ups because late-night meals are often immediately followed by laying down. This makes it challenging to keep contents in the stomach from traveling back to your esophagus, causing heartburn or regurgitation.

To avoid these symptoms, experts recommend people with acid reflux to avoid lying down after a meal or eating no later than three to four hours before bed.

High-Fat Dairy

Although high-fat dairy foods can provide essential nutrients for bone health, these foods can trigger heartburn in people with acid reflux.

To manage your symptoms, you may try swapping out high-fat dairy products with low-fat alternatives. Some examples include using:

  • Fat-free or 2% milk instead of whole milk
  • Low-fat yogurt instead of full-fat yogurt
  • Low-fat cheeses (e.g., swiss or cottage cheese) instead of high-fat cheeses (e.g., parmesan or cream cheese)

Choosing low-fat alternatives for high-fat butter and ice cream may also be helpful to curb your symptoms. 

Fatty Cuts of Meat

Fatty cuts of meat can increase the risk of acid reflux flare-ups because these foods tend to sit in the stomach longer.

Fatty meats may include bacon, sausage, and lunch or deli meats. Other types of red meat, such as steak and filet mignon, also tend to be high in fat. Choosing lean protein sources such as skinless poultry, fish or shellfish, and lean beef can minimize how often you experience symptoms


Drinking several cups of coffee or tea each morning, or consuming high-fat specialty coffees from your local café, can worsen symptoms of reflux. 

Most coffees and teas contain caffeine, which can weaken the LES. If you have symptoms of acid reflux, try limiting your intake of coffee and other caffeinated drinks to reduce irritation in the esophagus.

How to Manage Acid Reflux

If you have acid reflux, your healthcare provider will likely recommend diet and lifestyle changes. In addition to limiting or avoiding the foods mentioned above, they may ask you to:

  • Refrain from smoking 
  • Adopt a low-acid diet
  • Eat small, frequent meals
  • Elevate your head when you sleep
  • Wait at least three hours after eating before going to bed

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are also available to treat acid reflux. Common medications include:

  • Antacids: These medications work to relieve heartburn and indigestion by neutralizing acid in the stomach. Examples of antacids include Alka-Seltzer, Tums, Maalox, Mylanta, and Rolaids.
  • H2 blockers: H2 blockers work by decreasing the amount of acid in the stomach. They can also promote esophageal healing. Examples include Pepcid Complete or Pepcid AC, Tagamet HB, and Zantac.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): PPIs work by reducing the amount of acid produced in the stomach. They are considered more effective at treating symptoms than H2 blockers. They can also help heal the esophageal lining. PPIs are available over-the-counter, or your provider may prescribe a PPI to manage long-term symptoms of GERD.

A Quick Review

Acid reflux is a common but frustrating digestive condition that many people may experience at some point in their lives. Chronic acid reflux may be a sign of a condition called GERD.

Fortunately, acid reflux can usually be managed at home through diet and lifestyle changes. Many people find that certain foods or drinks, such as spicy foods, fatty foods, acidic foods, and soda, can worsen their symptoms. Treatment of symptoms typically includes limiting trigger foods, eating nutritious meals, reducing smoking, and avoiding lying down shortly after a meal. If your symptoms persist, OTC medications are also available.

If you are experiencing acid reflux, speak with your healthcare provider to develop a personalized treatment plan to help you manage symptoms.

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