Foods to Avoid with Heartburn

An elimination diet, research has proven, can help you discover which foods to avoid with heartburn.

If you suffer from chronic heartburn, certain foods may be to blame. But the foods that trigger heartburn in one person can be different than the foods that cause heartburn symptoms in another person. So how do you figure out which foods to avoid with heartburn?

Based on research conducted at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago, you may want to try a short elimination diet followed by a careful food reintroduction.[1] The method helped patients discover which foods and food groups were causing their symptoms—and their symptoms stayed away when they avoided these foods.

One Cause of Heartburn: Inflammation of the Esophagus Due to Allergies

Among potential causes of heartburn, one that’s receiving more and more attention is inflammation of the esophagus due to allergies. This condition is known in medical circles as “eosinophilic esophagitis.” Characterized by the congregation of immune cells known as eosinophils in the esophagus, the condition leads to inflammation, thickening, scarring, and dysfunction of the esophagus. Eosinophilic esophagitis, thought to be caused by food allergies, not only brings on heartburn, but it commonly causes difficulty swallowing.

Study: Elimination Diet Treats Heartburn and Other Symptoms

In 2012, a group of researchers at Northwestern University assessed the effects on heartburn of an elimination diet followed by food reintroduction. The subjects were adults with eosinophilic esophagitis.[1] Not only did the elimination of common allergenic foods effectively treat the subjects’ heartburn and other symptoms, according to researchers, but the systematic reintroduction of those foods effectively identified ones that caused symptoms.

At the start of the study, 50 adults with heartburn and other symptoms of eosinophilic esophagitis underwent imaging studies of the stomach and esophagus. They also had biopsies taken to look for eosinophils and skin-prick tests for food allergens. They then followed a food allergy elimination diet for six weeks. The elimination diet was not based on the skin prick tests and the skin prick tests did not correctly identify the causative foods. After the six-week diet, the patients underwent repeat imaging and biopsies.

Not only did symptoms of heartburn, difficulty swallowing, and food impaction significantly decrease in 94 percent of the patients, but the average number of eosinophils in the esophagus significantly decreased as well, indicating the patients were no longer suffering from allergic and immune responses due to the foods they were eating. However, after food reintroduction, the number of eosinophils returned to their higher, pre-treatment levels.

Wheat and Milk: Common Heartburn Culprits

The foods most frequently associated with symptoms were wheat (60 percent of cases) and milk (50 percent of cases). If you eliminate nothing else but these two food groups for a short while and then re-introduce them one at a time, you may very well be able to find which foods to avoid with heartburn.

Instead of eliminating just wheat, however, you may want to try eliminating all gluten-containing grains for the trial. Another study found a strong association between celiac disease and symptoms of acid reflux; patients’ heartburn symptoms rapidly and dramatically improved once they started on a gluten-free diets.[2] Other common food allergens to avoid while doing an elimination diet include corn and soy.


For related reading, please visit these posts:

Which Foods to Avoid with Heartburn? Try an Elimination Diet

For more elimination diet information and instructions, see our post describing a detoxification protocol utilizing the elimination diet. The elimination diet outlined in that article is the same one you would utilize for determining foods to avoid with heartburn.

The key is to re-introduce foods slowly and one at a time after the elimination period, paying close attention to your heartburn symptoms. You’ll be surprised and relieved to finally know which foods trigger your heartburn.

[1] Gastroenterology. 2012 Jun;142(7):1451-9.
[2] Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2011 Mar;9(3):214-9.

Originally published in 2017, this post is regularly updated.

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UHN Staff

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