What is acid reflux?

Acid reflux, also known as heartburn or dyspepsia, is one of the most common digestive complaints. Symptoms vary from a warm to burning pain felt in the middle of the chest, which rises up to the throat, some sufferers also complain of an unpleasant taste in the mouth and bad breath.


These symptoms make sense when you stop to think that reflux involves the acidic contents of the stomach travelling up the food pipe or oesophagus. If this happens consistently over time, it may cause damage and inflammation, and potentially develop into a more serious condition, such as Barrett’s oesophagus.

Discover our full range of health benefit guides and learn more about how to eat for acid reflux and what to drink for acid reflux.

How do I know which foods trigger my reflux?

If you suffer with reflux, knowing which foods to avoid can be confusing and that’s because there’s still some controversy over the foods that are most likely to cause a problem. Keeping a food diary can be helpful, as it helps you become more aware of your eating habits and establishes a foundation on which to make and monitor changes. A food diary can also help you more accurately pinpoint trigger foods or times of the day when you are more likely to experience symptoms.

Here’s how to get started:

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  • Record what, when and how you ate – include everything from meals, snacks and nibbles to caffeinated drinks, alcohol and juices.
  • Be as accurate as possible – its best to keep your diary in real time rather than trying to remember later in the day
  • Include details about how the food was prepared and cooked (e.g. boiled, grilled, fried etc).
  • Include the circumstances in which you ate – were you stressed or relaxed, were you eating ‘on the hoof’ or calmly at a table
  • Record your symptoms, when they occurred and how long they lasted
  • If you take medication or supplements, include them in your diary, as well as when in the day you took them
  • Keep the diary every day for at least two weeks, including weekends

After the two weeks take a look back and see if you can see any recurring themes – these might be lifestyle related or a food trigger. A diary, such as this, can be revealing and worth taking to an appointment with your GP or dietician.

Full English breakfast with beans, bacon and chips

What are the most common foods to trigger acid reflux?

Some foods are thought to increase the frequency of symptoms, and for this reason many people choose to avoid them. However, it’s worth noting that not all foods affect all people. Here are some of the most likely triggers, why they are problem and what you might choose instead.

Fat and fatty foods

These foods take longer to digest resulting in more digestive juices being produced.

What to try instead

  • Minimise fatty foods such as fried breakfasts, crisps, chips, pizza, pastries and pies
  • Trim off any visible fat from meat and poultry
  • Consider a spray oil for cooking
  • Drain off any excess cooking fat
  • Grill, bake, steam or boil rather than fry

Coffee, chocolate and cocoa

These contain compounds such as caffeine, a regular intake of which may worsen symptoms, especially for sensitive people.

What to try instead

  • Swap to decaffeinated alternatives
  • Minimise your intake of chocolate and cocoa

Alcohol, including beer and wine

Compounds in alcoholic drinks loosen the sphincter muscle that controls the opening between the stomach and oesophagus. Symptoms are normally experienced within the first hour after consumption.

What to try instead

Fresh tomatoes on the vine

Tomatoes and tomato-based meals

Tomatoes contain malic and citric acid, both of which may add to stomach acidity.

What to try instead

  • Minimise tomatoes in your diet
  • Use an alternative vegetable sauce for pasta, and a green pesto to top pizza

Spicy meals

Spices are thought to irritate the lining of the oesophagus.

What to try instead

• Avoid chilli and cayenne, and opt for ginger or cinnamon instead
• Keep a food diary to assess your tolerance

Garlic and onions

These both stimulate gastric acid production.

What to try instead

Assess your tolerance for cooked onions or milder shallots.

Citrus and citrus juice

As their name suggests, these contain citric acid and their low pH is thought to exacerbate reflux symptoms.

What to try instead

• Choose alternatives such as melon, papaya or banana
• Older, riper citrus fruits have lower acid levels

Glasses of cola on the table

Carbonated drinks

Fizzy drinks cause abdominal distension which puts pressure on the sphincter muscle. They may also be a source of caffeine.

What to try instead

  • Water
  • Herbal teas
  • Diluted cordial

I’ve been diagnosed with acid reflux – what type of diet is less likely to trigger my symptoms?

There’s no specific diet for acid reflux but vegetarian diets are less likely to cause a digestive issue, so minimising meat, fish and eggs, and reducing the amount of fats and fatty foods in your diet may be helpful. Including dietary fibre has been seen to reduce the frequency of reflux and its associated symptoms.

Read more in our guide on how to eat for acid reflux.

What else may affect my chances of both developing reflux and successfully managing it?

The greater your body mass index the more likely you are to experience acid reflux, so keeping an eye on your weight may help minimise your risk of developing the condition and, if you already have acid reflux, minimise your symptoms. Whether you develop acid reflux may depend on your genetics with some people being genetically predisposed to the condition.

Other factors that may increase your risk include infection with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, being diagnosed with a hiatus hernia, having a weak sphincter muscle between the stomach and oesophagus, being more than 40 years of age or pregnant.

Can lifestyle changes help manage reflux?

Lifestyle changes may help, these include eating regularly – so no more mindless midnight snacks or skipping breakfast! Take time over your food by sitting at a table, eating slowly and not eating beyond your comfortable fullness. If you tend to eat late in the evening this can be a trigger, so instead swap your main meal to lunchtime and aim for at least three hours between your evening meal and retiring to bed.

If you smoke, stop and look to find alternative ways to help deal with stress. Chemicals in cigarette smoke relax the sphincter muscle that controls the opening between your oesophagus and stomach, making reflux symptoms worse. Exercise can be useful and when conducted for 30 or more minutes three times a week is negatively correlated with acid reflux.

Modifications in the house may also help – if you suffer with symptoms during the night, elevating the head of your bed by 10-20cm may alleviate them. Similarly, avoid bending or lying down immediately after eating and avoid tight fitting clothes.

Don't forget...

It’s important not to ignore symptoms and to refer to your GP if you experience any of the following:

  • Heartburn most days for three weeks or more
  • You’ve been taking antacids for four weeks or more
  • You have symptoms such as weight loss, nausea or difficulty swallowing in conjunction with your heartburn

If you’re considering a change in diet, please consult your GP beforehand to ensure you can do so without risk to health.

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Do you have a question about acid reflux? Ask our team in the comment section below.

This article was uploaded in November 2022 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a postgraduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the past 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_


All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our terms and conditions for more information.

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