Medically reviewed by Katherine Marengo LDN, R.D., specialty in nutrition,
Written by Jessica Caporuscio, Pharm.D.
Dairy is not among the recognized causes of acid reflux, but some people may still experience this symptom when eating dairy.
People who experience acid reflux after eating dairy products can instead opt for lower fat dairy options or alternatives to dairy.
In this article, we describe acid reflux. We also discuss the association between dairy and acid reflux.
People with heartburn may experience a burning sensation in the chest that moves up into the neck and throat.
This sensation is due to acid from the stomach rising into the esophagus, or food pipe.
The esophagus does not have the same protection as the stomach against acid and digestive enzymes, so contact with stomach juices can damage its lining.
People may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) if they experience:
- frequent heartburn symptoms
- chronic sore throat
- bad breath
- difficulty swallowing
- the feeling of food sticking in the throat or chest
Some people also get a sour or bitter taste in their mouth. This taste comes from the acid that has made its way to the back of the throat. Sometimes, symptoms can last for several hours.
The job of the lower esophageal sphincter is to keep the stomach contents from rising into the esophagus. If the sphincter becomes weakened, stomach juices can make their way into the esophagus and cause heartburn.
Relationship between dairy and acid reflux
Some foods can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter, making it easier for the contents of the stomach to reach the esophagus.
The American College of Gastroenterology’s clinical guidelines for the diagnosis and management of GERD do not list dairy as a cause of heartburn. However, high fat dairy products, such as whole milk and yogurt, can relax the sphincter, potentially leading to heartburn.
Other foods that can relax the lower esophageal sphincter include:
- fatty foods
- spicy foods
- fried foods
Some doctors recommend avoiding all foods that cause acid reflux. However, this may not be necessary as some people with heartburn can tolerate some of the foods on this list.
People who experience heartburn should keep track of the foods that cause their symptoms and avoid those foods.
People with lactose intolerance have difficulty digesting the lactose in dairy products. If they eat these foods, they may experience:
- abdominal bloating
- abdominal pain
People sometimes refer to these symptoms as heartburn, but the medical community does not consider acid reflux to be a symptom of lactose intolerance.
Possible health benefits
Many dairy products are healthful and make a great snack. They are also an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D.
However, people with heartburn may develop acid reflux symptoms after eating dairy because of its high fat content.
Individuals who are keen not to avoid dairy completely may find that replacing high fat dairy products with lower fat varieties helps reduce acid reflux.
Possible health risks
Avoiding dairy because it causes acid reflux may lead to deficiencies in the many nutrients that dairy provides. Therefore, experts do not recommend routinely avoiding dairy if it does not contribute to a person’s symptoms.
Low fat dairy can provide similar amounts of nutrients as high fat dairy options.
However, if a person does want to avoid dairy, many dairy alternatives are available in grocery stores. The person will need to take care to ensure that they are getting enough nutrients from other dietary sources.
Alternatives to dairy
People with lactose intolerance can reduce the amount of lactose in their diet by choosing low lactose or lactose-free dairy products.
Some people choose to avoid dairy altogether. People who either choose to avoid or cannot eat dairy must replace the nutrients that the elimination of dairy products has removed from their diet.
- vitamin D
- vitamin A
The following table, which takes its information from the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Office of Dietary Supplements, lists some dietary sources of these vitamins and minerals.
Protein Calcium Potassium Magnesium Vitamin D Vitamin A
seafood fortified, potatoes almonds salmon sweet
cereal with skin
meats almond milk prune juice spinach rainbow trout beef liver
poultry tofu carrot juice cashews swordfish spinach
eggs calcium- passion fruit peanuts sturgeon carrots
fortified (yellow or
orange juice purple)
nuts soy milk tomato paste shredded wheat whitefish cantaloupe
seeds sardines beet greens soy milk mackerel sweet red
soy products rice drink adzuki beans black beans portabella mangoes
white beans edamame tuna black-eyed
tomato puree whole wheat halibut apricots
sweet potato avocado herring broccoli
Atlantic potato with sardines
clams brown rice rockfish
pomegranate instant tilapia
Foods and drinks to consume
The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders provide food recommendations for people with acid reflux. No particular diet for people with acid reflux exists, but some foods can help relieve or prevent symptoms.
Foods that people can include in their diet to avoid or relieve heartburn include:
- noncitrus fruits and vegetables
- egg whites
- lean meats
- oatmeal, whole grain bread, rice, and couscous
- potatoes and root vegetables
- unsaturated fats
Other tips that may help some people with heartburn include:
- chewing gum (but not spearmint or peppermint)
- avoiding alcohol
- keeping good posture during and after a meal
Foods and drinks to avoid
The American College of Gastroenterology recommend avoiding the following foods and drinks as they may cause acid reflux:
- greasy foods
- spicy foods
- tomatoes and other tomato products
People with acid reflux should consider avoiding these foods, as well as any others that seem to cause or worsen their symptoms. A food may cause acid reflux for some people and not others.
People who keep a diary of the foods that they eat and their symptoms may discover other triggers of heartburn. Once a person identifies an item as a potential cause of heartburn, avoiding that product may reduce symptoms.
Sometimes, the timing of meals can be a cause of acid reflux. Doctors usually recommend not eating just before lying down. People should wait about 2–3 hours after eating before they lie down or go to bed.
Smoking and having overweight or obesity can also cause heartburn. Making lifestyle changes may help reduce acid reflux in these circumstances.
Although dairy may not be a recognized cause of acid reflux, people may want to avoid high fat dairy products if these trigger their symptoms.
There is no health-related need to avoid certain foods routinely, including dairy, unless they cause symptoms.
Dairy products are a good source of nutrients. Avoiding dairy and not getting the lost nutrients from other sources can lead to deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D.
However, people who wish to avoid dairy can choose from a list of alternative foods, which can provide them with these nutrients.