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4th December, 20205 min read

Foods that cause heartburn

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Author:Alex Bussey
Last reviewed: 12/11/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Heartburn is a painful burning sensation that’s normally felt in the middle of your chest. It occurs when stomach acid travels back up the tube which connects your stomach to your mouth (the oesophagus). It can be uncomfortable and often painful.

Certain foods are known to trigger heartburn, but these triggers vary from person to person. It can be quite hard to work out what’s causing your symptoms — especially if you’re not used to keeping a food diary or tracking the foods in your diet.

Here are some common triggers and foods known to make symptoms of heartburn worse.

Foods that trigger heartburn

Fried or fatty foods

Fried or fatty foods are thought to relax the sphincter, a ring of muscle found at the base of your oesophagus. This allows the contents of your stomach to flow back up towards your throat.

Fatty foods are also harder to digest, which means that they tend to sit in your stomach for longer. This increases the amount of material that’s available for reflux, which may make your symptoms worse.

So if you have heartburn, you may find that it helps to avoid:

  • cream
  • ice cream
  • high-fat cheeses like cheddar, red leicester or parmesan
  • sausages and bacon
  • chips
  • high-fat baked goods like cakes, doughnuts or pastries

Fizzy drinks

Fizzy or carbonated drinks contain a lot of gas (carbon dioxide). This gas can build up in your stomach, putting pressure on the sphincter muscle at the base of your oesophagus, increasing your risk of heartburn.

Try to avoid drinks like cola, lemonade or carbonated water if you have symptoms of heartburn. Beer and mixers like cream soda and tonic water also contain a lot of gas.

Chocolate and coffee

Chocolate and coffee both contain chemicals called methylxanthines. These chemicals act as muscle relaxants, which means they can loosen or relax the sphincter that separates your oesophagus from your stomach.

As with fatty foods, this allows the contents of your stomach to move back up into the oesophagus — triggering symptoms of heartburn.

Decaffeinated coffee also contains a small amount of methylxanthines, so it’s worth switching to something like tea or water if you’re trying to reduce your symptoms of heartburn.

Foods that make heartburn symptoms worse

Some foods are also understood to irritate your oesophagus. These foods won’t trigger heartburn on their own, but eating them may make your symptoms worse. Examples include:

  • mint or mint-flavoured things like peppermint or spearmint gum
  • tomatoes and tomato-based products, like pasta and pizza sauces
  • citrus fruits and juices
  • spicy foods

Alcohol is also thought to make heartburn worse, so if you have heartburn it might be worth cutting down.

But it’s important to remember that everyone’s trigger foods are different. For example, you may find that citrus fruits don’t seem to make your symptoms worse, or that eating just a small amount of spearmint is enough to trigger a bad bout of heartburn.

Keep a food diary for a week if you're finding it hard to spot your triggers. This will help you to notice any patterns, and start building a list of ‘problem’ foods to avoid.

When to see a doctor about heartburn

Lifestyle and dietary changes, like limiting or avoiding trigger foods, should help to reduce symptoms of heartburn.

But if those options aren’t helping and you have heartburn most days or for longer than 3 weeks, you may need to see a doctor. This is because repeat or chronic heartburn can be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD).

GORD can often be treated by making changes to your lifestyle. But it’s important to start treatment as early as possible because having GORD for a long time is known to increase your risk of oesophageal ulcers and oesophageal cancer.

You should also see a doctor if you have heartburn as well as other symptoms, such as:

  • food getting stuck in your throat
  • vomiting or being sick regularly
  • losing weight without meaning to

Key points:

  • heartburn occurs when stomach acid is allowed to flow back up your oesophagus — causing a painful, burning sensation in your chest
  • heartburn is often linked to behaviours like eating large meals or exercising on a full stomach, but certain foods are also known to trigger the condition
  • common trigger foods include fatty or greasy foods, coffee, chocolate and fizzy drinks. Tomatoes, mint and citrus fruits and juices can also make symptoms worse for some people
  • if you think food might be contributing to your heartburn, try keeping a food diary for a week so you can identify any patterns
  • if changing your diet doesn't work, see a doctor to rule out a more serious underlying cause
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