Holiday Foods to Avoid
While not everyone has the same GERD triggers, some foods are more likely than others to cause heartburn.
Fat and protein, especially fatty meats such as cured ham and roasted duck, take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates. And, when food lingers in the stomach, the lower esophageal sphincter (the band of muscle that seals off the stomach from the esophagus) starts to relax. This allows the half-digested food and stomach acid to travel back up into the esophagus, says Dr. Hoscheit.
Alcohol can also cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, potentially triggering heartburn, says Andrew DuPont, MD, a gastroenterologist at Memorial Hermann Medical Center and UTHealth Houston.
Unless you can tolerate spirits, you may want to avoid seasonal cocktails, such as eggnog (which can contain brandy or bourbon) or mulled wine (which can contain rum). Stick with beer or wine instead, which may not cause heartburn to the same extent as other types of alcohol, according to a study published in 2021.
It’s also important to note that alcohol can affect people differently. While one person may be able to handle spirits but not beer and wine, the opposite may be true for someone else. When drinking alcohol, try drinking water along with it, which can help dilute stomach acid, says Dr. DuPont. But, if you want to avoid heartburn completely, you may need to abstain from alcohol altogether.
Nothing tops off a holiday meal quite like a warm mug of coffee. Problem is, the caffeine in coffee — one cup contains 96 milligrams — can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, says DuPont. Try sipping a cup of decaf instead, which only contains 2 milligrams of caffeine. It might also be best to turn down the sugar cookie–flavored creamer and drink your decaf black or with just a splash of milk, because creamers and sweeteners can be high in fat.
If your holiday meals feature spicy foods, such as jerk chicken or jalapeno mac ’n’ cheese, you may want to turn down the heat. Some research shows that capsaicin — the compound that makes chili peppers fiery — can stimulate receptors that trigger heartburn.
Eyeing up chocolate bark? Keep in mind that chocolate can have nearly as much caffeine as a cup of coffee: One dark chocolate bar (about 100 grams) can contain 80 milligrams’ worth, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Certain chocolate treats can also be high in fat, which, as we know, can cause heartburn.
Even though peppermint can help ease digestion, some research shows that it is a muscle relaxant, which can also cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, says Hoscheit.
A little bit of peppermint may not cause you any heartburn, but if it’s one of your triggers, you may want to steer clear of treats such as peppermint bark and cookies.
Citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes, can trigger heartburn symptoms. And, because they’re acidic, they can also irritate the lining of your esophagus, worsening GERD symptoms, according to Mass General Brigham.
GERD-Friendly Holiday Foods
Not everything on the holiday table or buffet is off limits. Here are some safer choices to indulge in:
Try to limit fatty cuts of dark meat, and eat the lean (white) portions of turkey and other poultry instead. If you can’t avoid it altogether, at least take the skin off, says DuPont. Also, go for leaner cuts of red meat, and skip the ribs.
Opt for plain potatoes or sweet potatoes, which are less likely to add fuel to the fire than french fries or cheesy potatoes. Filling up on whole grains, such as quinoa, whole-wheat pasta and brown or wild rice, can help you feel full and prevent you from eating too much (another heartburn trigger).
Salads and Produce
Instead of citrus salads, try eating greens, such as asparagus, broccoli, and green beans, or root vegetables, such as carrots and beets. You can also swap out citrus fruits for less acidic fruits, says Christine Taylor, MPH, a registered dietitian at Memorial Hermann in Houston. Good picks include bananas and apples. Watermelon, which is also high in water, can also help dilute stomach acid, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
You may not have to swear off sweets altogether, says DuPont. “If there’s a known trigger, and you can’t avoid it, then decrease the amount you eat,” he says.
5 Tips to Prevent Acid Reflux During the Holidays
Avoiding certain foods is only half the battle. Follow these steps to ward off heartburn during and after a meal.
- Wear Comfortable Clothes You don’t have to break out the sweatpants (although that’s always an option). Instead, try to avoid close-fitting pants or dresses and tightly cinched belts. “Tight clothing increases abdominal pressure and can lead to reflux,” says DuPont.
- Eat Smaller Portions Eating one big meal in a 30-to-60-minute window “puts a huge load on the stomach all at once,” says Hoscheit. Try to wait at least 2 or 3 hours before going back for more, which is how long it takes the stomach to digest solid food, he says. Also remember, “If you eat less food, the stomach will empty itself in a shorter amount of time,” he adds.
- Don’t Lie Down Right After You Eat It may be tempting to crash on the couch after a big holiday meal, but try to sit upright for at least an hour or two to ward off heartburn. If you sit up, gravity helps the food stay in your stomach. Once you lie down, stomach contents could travel back up into your esophagus, says Hoscheit.
- Go for a Walk After a Meal Walking around, even for a few minutes, can help stimulate the stomach to empty faster, says Hoscheit. This can be a great way to resist the temptation to lie down after you’ve finished eating.
- Sleep on the Left Side of Your Body and Prop Yourself Up With a Pillow Here’s a quick anatomy lesson: Your stomach is on the left side of your abdomen, and when you sleep on your left side, your stomach dips toward the mattress, leaving a reservoir where food can sit until it’s digested, says Hoscheit. “If you flip to the right, the stomach moves toward the abdomen, and all the stomach contents can reflux into the esophagus.” So, when you go to sleep at night, try to sleep on your left side. You can also prop yourself up with a pillow, so you’re sleeping on an incline, using gravity to help combat heartburn. That will help make your holiday nights — and days — less stressful and more festive.