man in blue shirt with heartburn

Ah, heartburn. A sensation experienced by so many, and universally hated by all who have it. Heartburn is one of the most common, if not the most common, gastrointestinal symptom that people go through regularly, with over 15 million people in the United States feeling that unpleasant burning pain in their chest every single day, and four times that number of folks in the U.S. experiencing heartburn every month (per MedlinePlus). And when we have heartburn — which can flare up when we least expect it — the classic response is to reach for an antacid tablet, a practice which has seen the antacid market explode, with people spending almost 6 billion dollars worldwide on heartburn medication in 2017 (per Grand View Research).

But what if the answer to heartburn was not to treat it after the fact, but to treat it before? Heartburn is typically prompted by our diets, and the hard truth is that there are foods out there that are far more likely to flare things up in the first place. Here are some of the worst foods you can put on the table if you’re trying to avoid heartburn.

Why does heartburn occur in the first place?

elderly woman with heartburn

You’ve probably always been told that to cure heartburn, you have to eat better. Right. But why? What’s actually happening down there when we experience it?

Well, heartburn is caused when stomach acid, produced by certain foods that we eat, works its way back up our gastrointestinal system (per Cedars-Sinai). This stomach acid enters our esophagus and can move its way up through to our chest and throat via an opening called the lower esophageal sphincter, which, when loosened, gives the bile easy access to wash back up.

It’s important to remember that heartburn isn’t just triggered by the food that you eat, too. Smoking cigarettes may result in your lower esophageal sphincter weakening, which raises the chances of your stomach acid getting through. Taking certain medications, like NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, can also produce heartburn. Crucially, too, you should never ignore your symptoms. "Heartburn should never be considered normal," says Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital internal medicine specialist Peter Galier (via WebMD). And if your heartburn is happening regularly, you should see a doctor, to prevent further complications like inflammation and damage to the esophagus — and more importantly, to maintain your quality of life.

Chicken wings

chicken wings on black plate

For a lot of people, chicken wings are the ultimate food. Handheld, deceptively versatile, a good source of protein, and very, very tasty. But we’re willing to bet you won’t love chicken wings as much when you realize that they could be the trigger for your heartburn.

This is because wings, like other high-fat, fried foods, can stimulate heartburn symptoms way more than other foods, as Healthline discusses. High-fat foods can cause the stomach to create bile salts, compounds that provoke heartburn and irritate the esophagus. This is bad enough by itself, but when you consider the fact that high-fat food items may also prompt the production of cholecystokinin — a hormone that loosens our lower esophageal sphincter — resulting in more stomach acid being able to make its way into our upper GI tract, it’s a perfect storm for heartburn hell.

That’s why, if you’re trying to limit your heartburn, it’s a good idea to limit deep-fried foods and other potential triggers. A study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences found that when people who experienced gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) revamped their diets to remove potentially provocative foods like pizza or fried foods, their heartburn dropped dramatically.

Tomatoes

tomatoes close up photo

On the surface of things, tomatoes don’t seem like a particularly unwise choice for people who want to keep their heartburn at bay. Sure, things like doughnuts and pizza make sense to cause you a bit of stomach upset afterward, but tomatoes? Healthy, virtuous, fresh tomatoes?

Unfortunately, these fruits can be a particularly nasty trigger for heartburn thanks to their high acid levels, say the experts at Vanguard Gastroenterology. The citric and malic acid packed into tomatoes can prompt your stomach to make more acid — and the more acid we have in our stomachs, the more likely it is to move back up into our esophagus, causing heartburn.

And it isn’t just fresh tomatoes that will do this. Cooked tomatoes retain their acidity, too. Having said this, using tomatoes in a stew or soup with other, less acidic vegetables like carrots could be a way to dilute the acid levels, which can be further neutralized by the addition of baking soda (per Livestrong). It may be worth leaving them off the plate next time you have a salad, though.

Wine

wine and cheese on table

Okay. We know that this isn’t what most people want to hear. But for those who love wine out there, we have some bad news for you. This beverage, and other drinks that have alcohol in them, could be one of the worst things out there for your heartburn. Alcohol can provoke heartburn quickly and notably, thanks to its potential to cause the body to create more stomach acid and relax the lower esophageal sphincter, says Medical News Today. Alcohol can also irritate your esophagus as you drink it, giving it the unique disadvantage of causing discomfort both on the way down and the way back up.

When you add to that the fact that drinking alcohol may affect your choices around food, leading you to eat things that may also cause heartburn, and the fact that some alcoholic beverages, like sparkling wine, are carbonated, which can also prompt heartburn … Well, it doesn’t look too good for your nightly glass, folks. And if that wasn’t enough? Wine in particular is pretty acidic, with white wines coming in close on the pH scale to lemonade and Coca-Cola, according to Wine Folly. Maybe just keep that cork in there for now, y’know?

Curry

curry chicken in black bowl

We think it’s pretty fair to say that well-balanced curries, with their complex blends of spices and rich, creamy sauces, are some of the most delicious foods out there. But the very thing that gives a lot of curries their fierce heat is also the thing that might cause your heartburn to flare up.

The compound that creates that spicy sensation is called capsaicin, states the University of California San Diego’s voluntary assistant clinical professor and integrative gastroenterologist Marvin Singh (via Tums). But capsaicin also affects our gastrointestinal system, making us digest slower. As a result, the food that we eat and our stomach acid are more likely to work their way back up into our upper GI tract, causing heartburn.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that capsaicin-containing foods may also cause irritation while we’re eating them, as well as afterward. Aside from making your mouth feel as though it’s on fire, "spicy foods can act directly as an irritant to the esophagus, which may already be inflamed, and that can also aggravate symptoms," warns Singh. Some curries specifically may also be higher in fat, thanks to the addition of oil, ghee, or cream. This may also stimulate heartburn in some people.

Grapefruit

grapefruit halves and leaves

For a while, a grapefruit in the morning was considered to be the epitome of health. And while grapefruits still sit snugly on breakfast tables across the land, if you have heartburn, it’s likely you’ll want to skip the fruit and grab something else to eat instead. Grapefruits and other citrus fruits can create issues thanks to their acidity levels, per WebMD. "As a result of being so acidic, they are likely to cause heartburn, especially when consumed on an otherwise empty stomach," advises Digestive Center for Women founder and gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan.

That’s why, if your heartburn is triggered by grapefruit, it may also be wise for you to avoid other acidic fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes. Bear in mind that some fruits might be more acidic than you think, too. Plums and pomegranates, for example, both have a pH level of 3, which is actually more acidic than grapefruit, according to the experts at Holland & Barrett. Similarly, pears (despite being seemingly innocent and mild-flavored) are fairly acidic too, and could create problems. Stick to fruits like coconut, mango, and banana if you’re looking for more alkali-leaning fruit options that won’t aggravate the stomach as much.

Candy

colorful candy strips up close

Hands up if you like candy? Okay, yes, that’s what we thought, all of you. But while candy is, for many people, the ultimate treat food, it’s not going to surprise you that super-processed, fluorescent-colored candy isn’t going to win any health prizes. And it’s also unlikely to please your stomach as much as it does your taste buds, with sugary candy bearing the potential to prompt acid reflux (via Eat This, Not That!).

The issue occurs because candy contains fructose, a sugar that makes up half of regular table sugar, and which is present in high-fructose corn syrup, a substance frequently added to candy (per Healthline). When you eat fructose, it can linger in your stomach, giving the bacteria there ample food and potentially prompting acid reflux and heartburn. It’s also worth noting that if your candy is especially sour, it could provide a further trigger to heartburn, thanks to the acids that give it its lip-puckering effect. Citric and malic acid are frequently found in sour candies, says Livestrong, and could prompt additional acid production and reflux.

Peppermint tea

mint tea in glass

Since time immemorial, peppermint tea has been hailed as a soothing, calming drink — a beverage that could settle your stomach (per Mount Sinai). So what if we told you that peppermint, as well as other mints, could actually have the opposite effect?

For some people, certain mints may increase heartburn symptoms, thanks to their effects on your lower esophageal sphincter, says Healthline. According to a study published in Przeglad Gastroenterologiczny, peppermint in particular may cause the lower esophageal sphincter to loosen, thereby allowing your stomach acid easier access back up into your esophagus, resulting in heartburn.

It’s also the case that people who have GERD may want to avoid mint, as consuming it may prompt symptoms of the disease, per a study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease. This might not be the case for the majority of people with GERD, however. And for others, peppermint and spearmint may work as a soothing aid to the stomach, reducing nausea, calming the stomach muscles, and improving digestion. If you drink peppermint tea regularly and experience heartburn, the best thing to do is to remove it from your diet temporarily and see if it makes a difference.

Onions

whole onions in bowl

If you flick to any savory recipe in a cookbook (or, more likely these days, scroll through a list of them on your favorite blog), an onion or two will likely feature somewhere in the mix. But for people who are prone to heartburn, this might not be the best news.

Onions are especially good at prompting our bodies to make more gastric acid than usual, as they limit the speed by which our food moves through our gastrointestinal tract, according to Vanguard Gastroenterology. As a result, your chances of experiencing heartburn after eating them is higher.

It should be noted that raw onions are way more prone to doing this, and cooking onions can reduce some (but not all) of their stimulatory effects. Other members of the allium family, like garlic, may also prompt acid reflux, according to Healthline. If you find regular onions and garlic to be especially stimulating for your stomach, it could be worth trying out some less pungent alliums like shallots of green onions, or simply leaving onion out of your dishes entirely.

Mashed potatoes

mashed potatoes on white plate

On the surface of things, mashed potatoes are one of the most innocuous and simple dishes around (as well as one of the tastiest, let’s be real). But that pile of white fluffiness on your plate might provide more problems than you think. And the reason for that? That whole milk, cream, and butter that’s thrown so merrily into the pot when you’re mashing can prompt heartburn.

High-fat dairy products can be problematic for heartburn because of their effect on your lower esophageal sphincter, says Medical News Today. When your sphincter relaxes as a result of eating these foods, stomach acid is more able to move into your esophagus, resulting in heartburn. The salt that’s often poured liberally into mashed potatoes may also create issues for your stomach and provoke that burning sensation in your chest, with a strong link between salt consumption and acid reflux symptoms, according to a study published in the journal Gut. Naturally, this isn’t exclusive to mashed potatoes (which serve as an easy base for these high-fat dairy products and salt), but for any foods that contain the two, with food items like cheese sauces also potentially creating issues for your gut.

Coffee

woman enjoying a coffee

Nectar of the gods, glorious elixir of the sleepy and the tired, coffee is the go-to drink in the morning. But if you’ve ever noticed that your chest is feeling a little sore after your favorite brew, it might be time to take a break from the bean.

Coffee may be a cause of heartburn thanks to the all-important caffeine in the drink, according to Healthline. Caffeine could loosen your lower esophageal sphincter and cause acid reflux to occur, with more caffeinated coffees potentially provoking more heartburn. This may also be the case if you drink tea and soda, with both drinks containing caffeine, although usually in smaller quantities than coffee or super-stimulating beverages like energy drinks.

But — and this is a big but — the effects of caffeine on heartburn, and particularly GERD, are not clear-cut. While some people do report heartburn after drinking coffee, research published in Gastroenterology & Hepatology found that no study has been able to conclusively prove the effects of caffeine on the lower esophageal sphincter or its subsequent effects on heartburn. If you suspect that your cup of coffee might be causing your stomach upset, though, it might be worth leaving it in the pot in the morning and seeing if there’s any positive change.

Diet Coke

diet coke in glass

A can of Diet Coke is a daily staple for folks around the world, and with its sugar-free recipe, it might be easy to assume that it’s not going to do you much harm. But Diet Coke and other sodas can affect your stomach in some pretty profound ways — and even prompt heartburn fast. The reason? It’s all those bubbles, people. "Carbonated beverages cause gastric distension," says Mercy Medical Center section head of gastroenterology Daniel Mausner (via WebMD). This distension can then create more acid reflux, thanks to the impact it has on your lower esophageal sphincter.

Diet Coke and other carbonated beverages also contain caffeine, which could prompt heartburn if consumed in higher quantities. And be careful what you’re mixing your Diet Coke with, too. Carbonated beverages are frequently combined with alcohol, which is another potential trigger for heartburn thanks to its relaxant effects on the esophageal sphincter, especially when combined with a big meal. Consuming higher amounts of diet soda may also pose other health risks, such as an increased likelihood of developing diabetes, according to Medical News Today.

Chocolate

bite-size chocolate in jar

We’re just gonna say it first and foremost — we are not anti-chocolate. We can’t get enough of the stuff, and we’re pretty sure you can’t, either. But it is worth knowing some of the effects that chocolate can have when you eat it, including its potential, and potentially unfortunate, effects on acid reflux.

The first reason for this is because of the potentially acidic nature of chocolate, says Healthline. While you might not think that your creamy bar of milk chocolate is particularly low on the pH scale, cocoa powder does have an acidic quality, and this may prompt activity in your stomach and create heartburn.

There’s also the fact that chocolate makes us feel so damn good. And that surge of serotonin that you get when you swallow a chunk of chocolate can then prompt your lower esophageal sphincter to relax, resulting in your gastric contents rising back up into your esophagus and chest. Chocolate also naturally contains two stimulating compounds — the well-known caffeine and the slightly less well-known theobromine — which may both prompt activity and worsen acid reflux symptoms. We’re sorry to be the bearer of bad news, folks, but if you experience heartburn, this sweet treat could be off the menu.

What foods are best for heartburn?

brown rice in bowl

While there’s a whole menu’s worth of food out there that could stimulate heartburn, that’s not to say that everything is off-limits. Rather, there are a host of foods out there that are great choices for people who experience heartburn frequently. It’s wise to steer clear of especially acidic foods and to try and eat foods that are more alkali, says Johns Hopkins Medicine. Nuts can be a great alkali snack, and fruits like melons or bananas will help keep heartburn at bay.

It’s also important to keep your fiber levels high, as these can have a behavioral effect, reducing the amount you eat overall and preventing heartburn due to overeating. Try replacing simple carbs with complex ones like brown rice, whole bread, or oats, and load up your diet with carrots, sweet potato, and broccoli. And remember, you don’t have to remove everything that triggers heartburn from your diet — just be sensible about how much you’re eating. "Moderation is key," states Johns Hopkins Medicine gastroenterologist Ekta Gupta. Scheduling your meals earlier in the day instead of late at night, as well as eating smaller meals more often, could also help to reduce your heartburn symptoms.