Raise your hand if you love food, but food doesn’t always love you (*hand skyrockets*). While delicious eats can have wonderful nutritious benefits, sometimes foods fight back and cause discomfort. A common culprit? Acid.

If the word “acid” has you thinking of spilled chemistry bottles melting through the floor, you’re not too far off. But the acid we’re talking about is the level of acidity in foods, which can cause issues like acid reflux, ulcers, and general stomach pain.

Basically, a food’s acidity level is determined by its pH value. pH uses a scale of 0 to 14 — 0 being the most acidic, 7 being neutral, and 14 being highly alkaline. The lower the pH, the more acidic the food is and, generally, foods with a pH of 4.6 or lower are considered acidic.

Most commonly consumed acidic foods

  • red meat (including chicken, turkey, and beef)
  • dairy
  • alcohol
  • fish
  • eggs
  • chocolate
  • fruits like tomatoes and citrus fruits
  • processed foods/drinks that contain refined sugar (such as soda, pastries, candy, and white bread)
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Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

According to a 2017 study, Western-style eating habits are loaded with acidic foods and as a result, up to 15 percent of people experience typical gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms of heartburn and regurgitation.

Another 2019 study suggests our usual snacking between breakfast, lunch, and dinner causes additional gastric acid secretion, and contributes to potential GERD.

And because the body system is connected, inflammation can spread elsewhere like wildflowers.

How can we combat high levels of acidity caused by certain foods? With foods that produce low levels of acidity, of course! And the alkaline diet is a popular suggestion for balancing out the burn.

The idea behind it is incorporating more nonacidic fruits and veggies into your diet may work to alter the body’s pH levels (acidic levels), thus combatting discomfort like stomach pain and heart burn.

Alkaline foods

  • veggies
  • egg whites
  • lean meats
  • noncitrus fruits
  • high fiber foods like oatmeal
  • healthy fats (e.g. walnuts, avocados, olive oil, and flaxseed)

Alkaline drinks such as water, milk alternatives, nonacidic fruit and veggie juices, and certain teas are also on the recommended list.

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In a 2018 study, 11 moderately trained 400-meter sprint participants went on a 4-day alkalizing diet that showed their 400-meter sprint performance increased. The study suggests that in general, meat, eggs, cheese, and cereal products promote systemic acidity (high-PRAL or potential renal acid load) while potatoes, vegetables, and fruits have the highest alkalizing potential (low-PRAL).

Lisa Richards, Nutritionist, Creator, and Author of The Candida Diet says, “Integrate more whole grains into your diet… another natural remedy for reflux includes integrating fruits into your diet. Following a low carbohydrate diet, or a diet with a focus on whole grains rather than refined carbohydrates can help to prevent or treat reflux. Some evidence indicates that undigested carbs lead to bacterial overgrowth, that can lead to many health conditions, including reflux because of the pressure placed on the abdomen by these bacteria.”

Richards adds, “Apples contain pectin, which is balancing to the pH of the stomach. Bananas can help reduce the impact of reflux by coating the lining of the stomach. Papayas have an enzyme, papain, that is responsible for dissolving carbohydrates which can aid in preventing reflux-causing bacterial growth.”

Fiber puts up a good fight too

According to a 2018 (fruit fiber) study, a whole fruit can provide a major source of fermentable fiber to support colon prebiotic activity, which can contribute to a wide range of potential human health benefits with sustained consumption at recommended levels.

Tricia Best, RD at Balance One says, “high fiber foods (like almonds and other high fiber nuts) are ideal for those with GERD. A typical lunch could consist of root vegetables (sweet potatoes and carrots) along with green vegetables, and whole grains.”

There’s recent 2021 study evidence to suggest fermented foods are winners, like tempeh (fermented tofu) and kombucha that are getting all the rage these days.”

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Here are some suggestions for getting a handle on stomach discomfort through everyday routine.

Avoid drastic changes in eating habits

Some change to your eating habits is obviously warranted, but no need to take big swings. For instance, simply not eating for a stretch of time will not make symptoms go away. Your stomach creates acid even when you’re not eating. So you’re basically creating a situation where you’re uncomfortable AND hungry. No thanks!

Alkalizing proteins cooked plain such as lean chicken or tofu/tempeh can keep you from feeling hungry or snacking, and you’ll feel better than on an empty stomach. Best says, include “nonfried lean animal protein if desired.”

Careful with the oils

Many of the recipes you might love call for cooking or sautéing with oils, but with that can come high levels of acidity.

Maybe give less processed options like EVOO a try or going with more steamed or baked options.

Exercise a little patience between meals

Growing up, you may have heard warnings that eating too fast can cause stomach discomfort or indigestion. Well the same could be said for the number of meals we have during the day.

Food from meals can still sit in your stomach for a while before you really start to feel hungry. However, feelings like boredom or impatience tend to masquerade as hunger sometimes — causing us to eat more than our stomach actually wants.

You’re better off pacing yourself in between meals and chewing slowly, like mom said.

Some late-night drinks are better than late-night snacks

If your stomach discomfort seems worse during the later hours, Best says there’s a reason for that.

“Stomach acid can seem worse at night because you’ve been eating throughout the day and your gut begins to slow down digestion in the evening,” she says. “You are also more likely to be sedentary or laying on your back, which can cause the acid in the gut to move up into the esophagus.”

Drinks like herbal teas and water with fresh ginger can provide some quick coolness. But speaking with a health pro is recommended for frequent occurrences.

You can also keep a just-in-case alkalizing food stash of carrots or favorite raw veggies ready so any late-night snack sesh that you do have won’t stir up a stomach tornado.

Reframe your whole snack attack

Because there are too many factors to determine just how much acidity is too much for your stomach, you’re better off focusing on the snack adjustments you KNOW will have your back stomach.

Best says, “bananas, nuts, cauliflower, melons, and fennel are good to work into every meal or snack.” She also recommends adding “high fiber chia and flaxseed.”

And Richards says, “bananas can help reduce the impact of reflux by coating the lining of the stomach.”

Friendly fire?

Though it has been notably controversial in some circles, Cathy Visser, RDN, suggests going with a homemade “Fermented Fire Cider” recipe — a fermented elixir full of friendly bacteria and antioxidants (feeding the microbiome and stomach lining).

While this cider doesn’t carry any super-hot cayenne or chili peppers (rather, it’s fermented with lemon juice and apple cider vinegar), it’s been said that the ingredients of fresh jalapeno peppers, chopped roots of horseradish, ginger, turmeric, garlic, and onions can actually make stomach pain worse.

So check with a health pro to see if this one is worth a shot.

Science suggests incorporating a balanced diet of alkalizing foods regularly can help with upset stomach symptoms caused by acidic foods. Keep ginger, herbal teas, and other alkalizing ingredients in your home to find creative ways to cook and meal plan ahead.

There may be no need to make any drastic changes to your eating habits unless a health professional recommends it. Just a tweak here and there can help you have a much smoother digestive time.