Nutrition Tips for Managing Reflux, Heartburn, and GERD

Heartburn, reflux, and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) may occur during cancer treatment. Cancer treatments or medications may affect parts of your digestive tract and cause the food and liquids in your stomach to reflux (travel back) into your esophagus (food pipe). Reflux may have symptoms such as swallowing difficulty, a sore throat, sour taste in your mouth, heartburn and painful digestion.

Talk with your healthcare team for the best care for reflux. Here are some tips and guidelines to help control reflux:


Go small.

  • Eat 5-6 small meals or snacks throughout the day. Smaller amounts of food are easier for the body to digest and absorb.
  • Smaller amounts of food also mean there is less food that can travel back up the food pipe.

Choose lean.

  • Avoid fried and fatty foods. These foods are hard to digest and stay in your stomach for a long time. Time increases risk for reflux.
  • Choose baked, broiled, or grilled foods instead.

Dress for comfort.

  • Wear loose-fitting clothes, especially clothes that are not tight around your stomach.
  • Clothes that are tight around the stomach can trigger reflux.

Avoid smoking and alcohol.

  • Smoking cigarettes (including e-cigarettes) and drinking alcohol can trigger reflux.
  • Instead of after-dinner drinks and cigarettes, chew sugarless non-mint gum for 30 minutes after meals. This encourages food to move through your digestive system.

Sit up.

  • Pay attention to your posture.
  • Sit up at least 1 hour after eating.
  • Good posture helps your breathing and may reduce fatigue during eating.
  • Raise the head of your bed 6 to 9 inches by putting wooden blocks under the legs of the head of your bed.

Slow down.

  • Eat slowly and chew food really well. Digestion begins in the mouth.
  • Smaller food pieces are much easier to digest and are less likely to cause discomfort.
  • Meals eaten in calm, relaxed place seems to be better digested.
  • Added stress from treatment can also trigger reflux; try to eat when you are feeling most relaxed.

Choose well.

  • Some specific foods and drinks may cause reflux symptoms. 
  • Some common problem foods and drinks may be: chocolate, cocoa, mint, whole milk, caffeine, pepper, some fruits/juices, pastries and other high-fat desserts. 

Write it down.

  • Record in a log the times you eat, the foods and drinks you consume, and any reflux symptoms.
  • If you eat a large portion of a problem food, you may have symptoms. Try a small portion and take notes in your log. Use your log to eliminate items that cause reflux symptoms.
  • Avoid “problem foods” for a couple of days to see if symptoms disappear.

Avoid eating before bed.

  • Avoid eating too close to bedtime.
  • Have your last food or drink 1-3 hours before you recline.
  • If still having trouble sleeping due to reflux, you may need to raise the head of the bed so that gravity helps keep food down in the stomach.

Ask for help.

  • Consult a local registered dietitian for specific recommendations based on your level of food tolerance.
  • Contact PearlPoint at guidance@pearlpoint.org for more suggestions.
  • Talk to your healthcare team if symptoms persist or get worse.