Acid reflux is one of the many conditions that a vegan diet is often touted for relieving. You can find success stories of vegans who say their GERD vanished on a plant-based diet. But if so, why does a vegan diet seem to cause heartburn for some other people?
Vegan heartburn is often caused by a sudden increase in eating trigger foods—such as coffee, chocolate, alcohol, mint, tomato products, spicy food, fried food, or salty food. Vegan cheese and mock meats specifically cause acid reflux for some. Eating large portions of food can also cause heartburn.
Below, I’ll explain how heartburn works, why it tends to be less common on plant-based diets, but why it still can happen to vegans. Then I’ll share 9 specific tips for reducing acid reflux as a vegan!
Do You Have GERD or Just a Little Heartburn?
If you’re experiencing heartburn on your vegan diet, it’s worth getting clear about how serious this issue is for you. More than 60 million Americans get heartburn on a monthly basis, but only around 15 million on a daily basis. (source)
Here is the difference between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD:
- Heartburn is a symptom—the sensation you experience when you have that discomfort in your chest.
- Acid reflux is the actual condition of stomach acid making its way into your esophagus, which often causes the symptom of heartburn.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition of getting heartburn twice or more per week, due to acid reflux.
So, how often do you feel heartburn? You may want to track it and know more precisely. If it’s a regular occurrence, you should mention it to your physician.
Below I’ll share some tips for tracking your heartburn and which foods trigger it!
Why Does Acid Reflux Happen?
When you feel heartburn, it means some stomach acid has made its way up into your esophagus (acid reflux). This is usually because the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) isn’t doing its job.
The LES is a muscle at the bottom of your esophagus that opens and closes to let the food you swallow into your stomach. When you’re not swallowing food, your LES should stay closed. This keeps your stomach acid in the stomach.
But with acid reflux, your LES is relaxing when it’s not supposed to. It’s letting acid splash or flow back up into the esophagus. This causes the burning sensation of heartburn (source).
Now… why does this specifically happen?
What Causes the LES to Relax or Weaken?
Not all the causes of a weakened or relaxed LES are fully understood at this point. But we do understand some factors:
- The LES relaxes in the presence of fat, and a high fat intake has been shown to be associated with more incidence of acid reflux (source). Indeed, one study found that a fatty McDonald’s breakfast like a sausage-and-egg biscuit caused more acid reflux than a low-fat McDonald’s breakfast like pancakes.
- In overweight individuals, there is extra pressure being placed on the LES, and this weakens its ability to stay closed. (source)
- The hormone cholecystokinin is shown to temporarily relax the LES. And blood levels of this hormone are raised by eating many high-fat foods like eggs and meat. (source)
- The capsaicin in spicy food can cause food to stay in your stomach longer—this is a risk factor for acid reflux. (source)
- Other specific foods, such as caffeine-contain products (coffee and chocolate), along with alcohol and cigarettes, also cause the LES to relax. (source)
- A hiatal hernia can cause part of the stomach to enter the chest cavity and cause frequent acid reflux. (source)
- Certain medications, such as antidepressants or pain relievers like Ibuprofen, can cause the LES to relax, as well. (source)
And there are more potential causes—including wearing tight clothes, eating big meals or spicy foods, and more!
Shouldn’t a Vegan Diet Reduce Heartburn?
But you can still get heartburn as a vegan. In fact, some people may experience more heartburn when first going vegan. And so then it’s pretty frustrating when you find all these articles saying that a vegan diet helps with heartburn.
You might be thinking… “This doesn’t make any sense! Vegan food gives me heartburn! It doesn’t prevent it!” Well, let’s look at possible reasons why this is happening:
- You may be increasing specific heartburn-causing vegan foods, such as tomatoes, chocolate, coffee, greasy food, spicy food, peppermint, or alcohol. (More foods below in the tips for relief!)
- You may be eating more high-fat foods like Beyond Burgers, fried vegan foods, or vegan cheese. I heard from a friend who had acid reflux after eating Daiya cheese specifically.
- You may be eating bigger meals now. This could happen because plant foods contain a lot more “bulk” of fiber and water. But eating big meals can put pressure on your LES and increase heartburn risk. (source)
And there’s one more interesting possibility I want to mention…
A Connection Between Vegan Gas and Vegan Heartburn?
As a new vegan, you may struggle with gas or bloating as your body adjusts to the extra fiber in a plant-based diet. Is it possible this extra gas also exerts an upward pressure that causes acid reflux?
However, I’m hesitant to say it’s likely for new-vegan gas to commonly cause new-vegan heartburn.
New-vegan gas is typically just a side effect of high fiber. Meanwhile, high fiber is associated with less acid reflux in most cases. Not to mention, the top food that causes gas for new vegans—beans—is often recommended as a food that helps prevent acid reflux!
If you notice a correlation between gas and heartburn, then you may want to keep this potential connection in mind—but again, I’m hesitant to say it’s a likely cause.
So, what are the probable causes of vegan acid reflux? And more importantly, what practical steps can you take toward vegan GERD relief?
9 Tips for Vegan Heartburn Relief
Here are 9 tips for heartburn relief, even if you’re already eating plant-based:
1. Identify Your Potential Trigger Foods.
There are many vegan foods that can cause heartburn. Start by looking at the following list of common plant-based heartburn trigger foods. Have you started eating more of any of these recently?
- Mint (e.g. spearmint, peppermint)
- Chocolate / cocoa
- Orange juice or grapefruit juice
- Spicy food
- Salty food
- Onions and garlic (especially raw)
- Alcoholic drinks
- Tomato products (including ketchup)
- Soda and carbonated drinks
- Fatty or fried food (source, source)
Keep in mind that “fatty food” for vegans could include mock meats like the Beyond Burger, which contains a lot of oil. It could also include vegan cheese, which is often made primarily of oil or nuts.
For now, just take note of any possible suspects. You may be able to make a list of 3 foods or 13 or more. That’s okay. Just have some idea of the potential culprits.
2. Keep a “Trigger Journal.”
Now, track what you eat each day for at least a week. You can do this with a food-tracking app like Cronometer if you wish.
Cronometer is what I’ve personally used to track my food when I was losing weight or trying to clear up my acne. But you can also track your food on paper or some other way. Just be sure to log when you’re eating the food, too.
You’ll also want to track your activities and your heartburn symptoms, too. You can see an example trigger journal in this post from Healthline.
After a few days or weeks, you’ll start to notice which “culprits” from above are causing you problems. You may see that every time you eat onions, you get heartburn, for example. Then you can ease off of those foods.
Sometimes, it may not be entirely clear which food caused your acid reflux on a particular day. But if you keep collecting data for a few weeks, a pattern should emerge.
3. Eat Foods That Reduce Acid Reflux.
The following vegan foods are recommended by gastroenterologists to reduce heartburn. So along with monitoring the trigger foods above, you can add more of these foods to your diet:
- Non-Citrus Fruits (banana, melon, pears, etc)
- Aloe Vera Juice
- Whole grain bread
Also, remember that a high fiber intake appears to decrease the risk of acid reflux. So beans and whole grains are also great potential choices beyond this specific list. And all antioxidant-rich produce has benefits for preventing long-term complications of GERD.
Take moment to think of some vegan acid reflux recipes from foods on this list. Here are some that come to mind for me:
- Avocado toast with whole grain bread and greens on top
- Oatmeal with banana or berries for sweetness
- Smoothie of banana, berries, and greens with plant milk
- Smoothie of banana, oats, and peanut butter with plant milk (yes, oats are actually good in smoothies!)
4. Try Eating Smaller Meals.
Vegan meal often require big portions to provide the same calories as a meat meal. But eating big meals can lead to more heartburn. Why?
When your stomach is packed with food, that creates more upward pressure on the LES. It’s harder for the LES to stay closed with all that food stuffed in there. This is why heartburn is most common after big meals. (source)
So, what can you do? Eat smaller meals. If you need to, you can always add some snacks or extra meals in between. But avoiding a “stuffed” belly is one good strategy to reduce heartburn.
5. Don’t Eat Right Before Bed.
It’s common advice for people with heartburn to avoid eating 2-3 or even 4 hours before bed. (source)
The reason is pretty simple: It’s gravity! Lying down makes it easier for stomach acid to flow through the relaxed LES. It’s best to stay upright for a few hours after meals. Let your stomach empty at least partially before heading to bed. (source)
6. Lose Some Weight (If You’re Overweight).
As covered above, being overweight is a GERD risk factor. Why?
The usual explanation is that it puts more pressure on your stomach and causes the LES to relax. Therefore, one of the best things you can do long-term to reduce heartburn is to lose excess weight.
Obviously, weight loss is challenging for many people. If you’d like some of the best tactics I know, read my post on “18 Tips for Vegan Weight Loss Without Counting Calories.”
7. Stop Smoking (If You Smoke).
Smoking is thought to negatively impact GERD and acid reflux through multiple mechanisms. Also, as you probably know, smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health overall. So you may want to take this opportunity to quit once and for all.
If you need help to quit smoking, the CDC has a lot of great, free resources. Start here with their “Tips From Former Smokers.”
8. Chew Gum.
Chewing gum helps you to produce more saliva. This can help wash any acid back down to your stomach easier. (source)
However, you should try this with a flavor of gum other than peppermint or spearmint. Remember that mint is a potential trigger food for heartburn!
9. Sleep on Your Left Side.
Due to the positioning of your stomach and esophagus in your body, it can help to sleep on your left side to reduce heartburn at night. Some authorities recommend using a body pillow to make this position comfortable and help you remember which way to lie down. (source)
Bonus Tip: If you can raise the read of your bed about six inches, that can also help gravity work in your favor while you sleep, further reducing heartburn.
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
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2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet—the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.