It's no secret that a heavy, greasy meal can sometimes cause a belly ache. But if you regularly get stomach pain after eating high-fat foods, or experience cramps, bloating, diarrhea or other GI symptoms, there could be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
Figuring out the culprit means paying attention to your symptoms, and in many cases, sharing them with your doctor. "There are many reasons why someone might get abdominal pain after eating fat," says Tamika Jaswani, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Memorial Hermann in Houston, Texas.
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Here, Dr. Jaswani shares some of the most likely reasons your stomach hurts after eating greasy foods and what you can do about them. Plus, learn when you should let your doctor know about your symptoms.
Let's face it: Sometimes fatty or rich foods can be tough to stop eating, even when you're full. And while eating too much of any food will likely make your stomach uncomfortable, overdoing it on things like a burger and fries, chips and guac, ice cream or pizza can leave you particularly uncomfortable, because fat takes longer than other macronutrients to digest, Dr. Jaswani says. Enter: Indigestion caused by greasy foods (and the feeling that you can't digest fat).
As your GI tract expends extra effort breaking down all that fat, you might feel crampy, bloated, nauseous or even have diarrhea.
Fix it: First, stop eating, because putting more fat in your stomach will only make you more uncomfortable.
Your discomfort should start to ease up as you digest more of the food, but in the meantime, taking an over-the-counter antacid like Tums ($7.98, Amazon) or Pepcid AC ($16.41, Amazon) can help you feel better, Dr. Jaswani says. Natural remedies for an upset stomach such as ginger or licorice root tea may help too.
And going forward, try cutting back on how often you eat greasy foods and how much you eat at a time to see if that prevents symptoms like stomach pain.
2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
One of the hallmark symptoms of IBS is abdominal pain after eating, including eating fatty foods.
"With IBS, there's a disorder of the brain-gut interaction that's sending pain signals when someone eats," Dr. Jaswani says.
You might also notice abdominal pain, bloating or cramping around the time of a bowel movement, along with frequent gas, bloating and constipation or diarrhea. Fried foods can cause this gas and associated symptoms, though other foods can trigger symptoms as well.
No one knows what causes IBS, but it appears to happen more often in people who are younger than 50 and female, and those who have anxiety or depression, a family history of IBS or a history of physical or emotional abuse.
Gastritis occurs when the lining of the stomach becomes inflamed, according to the Cleveland Clinic. You might feel uncomfortably full after eating or experience nausea, vomiting, bloating or black or tarry stool. Greasy food especially can aggravate gastritis.
A bacterial infection is most often to blame for gastritis, but it can also be caused by alcohol abuse, overuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (think: ibuprofen) or a sudden, severe illness or injury.
In severe cases, gastritis can lead to unintended weight loss or vomiting up blood.
Fix it: Gastritis caused by a bacterial infection typically requires antibiotics, per the Cleveland Clinic. Your doctor may also recommend antacids to reduce your discomfort while the infection clears up, such as Tums, Zantac or Prilosec.
Sometimes called delayed stomach emptying, gastroparesis happens when the stomach muscles move food through the GI tract at a slower-than-normal rate, per the Mayo Clinic.
"So greasy foods, because they already take longer to get digested, can sit around in the stomach and cause bloating, nausea or vomiting," says Dr. Jaswani. Foods high in fiber (beans and legumes, for example) can cause similar symptoms.
The problem most often occurs in people with diabetes or after abdominal surgery.
Fix it: Gastroparesis can often be managed with lifestyle changes. Per the Mayo Clinic, you might need to choose lower-fat foods; eat smaller, more frequent meals and cook fruits and vegetables thoroughly or puree them.
5. Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD)
GERD — which happens when the esophagus doesn't work correctly and allows stomach acid to flow backward — can be triggered by high-fat meals, Dr. Jaswani notes. Because fatty foods require more effort to digest, they stimulate the production of more stomach acid. That can trigger GERD symptoms, which can sometimes include upper abdominal pain after eating.
Other symptoms of GERD might include heartburn, chest pain, a feeling of food coming backward, difficulty swallowing, a sour taste in the back of the throat, a sore throat and even regurgitation or vomiting.
You're more likely to have GERD if you have overweight or obesity, are pregnant, smoke or regularly drink alcohol, have delayed stomach emptying or take certain medications, like those for allergies, high blood pressure or depression.
Fix it: Managing GERD usually involves avoiding trigger foods (ones that are fatty or spicy), eating smaller and more frequent meals, losing weight, avoiding eating before bed and keeping your head elevated when you sleep, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
If those steps aren't enough, over-the-counter or prescription meds (like antacids, H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors) can offer more relief.
6. Stomach Ulcer
Stomach ulcers, also called peptic ulcers, are sores that form on the inside lining of the stomach or the upper part of the small intestine. The most common symptom is burning stomach pain after eating, but ulcers can also cause heartburn or nausea after eating. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a greasy or large meal, it can be anything," Dr. Jaswani says.
Fix it: See your doctor if you think you might have an ulcer. Some ulcers are caused by bacterial infections and require antibiotics. Per the Mayo Clinic, your provider might also prescribe an acid blocker like a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) or histamine (H2) blocker, or other medications to help the ulcer heal. Avoiding foods that trigger your symptoms can also make a difference.
7. Gallstones or Gallbladder Disease
Your gallbladder is a small organ on the right side of your upper abdomen, and it's responsible for releasing chemicals that aid in the digestion of fats. So when gallstones — hard pieces of cholesterol that can cause blockages — form (or if you're experiencing gallstone inflammation or a related infection), a fatty or greasy meal might trigger abdominal pain.
"Someone might come in and say, 'I ate something greasy and got intense pain or nausea in the middle of my abdomen,'" Dr. Jaswani says.
Having diabetes or obesity ups your risk for gallstones, per the Cleveland Clinic, and they are more common in people assigned female at birth, those over the age of 40 and people of Native American or Mexican descent.
Fix it: Pain medications and antibiotics can help manage gallbladder pain caused by gallstones, inflammation or an infection. But the only permanent way to address persistent symptoms is removing the gallbladder, the Cleveland Clinic notes. This can usually be done via minimally invasive surgery.
Like the gallbladder, the pancreas plays a key role in fat digestion, so it has to work harder when you eat greasy foods. Pancreatitis happens when the pancreas becomes inflamed, often from heavy drinking or gallstones.
"People complain of abdominal pain in the middle of the stomach, nausea or vomiting, as well as pain radiating up the back," Dr. Jaswani says.
Fix it: Seek medical attention if you think you might have pancreatitis. Your doctor may prescribe medications that can help your body digest fats. In some cases, surgery might be needed to remove a damaged portion of the pancreas or remove a blockage, like gallstones, per the NIDDK.
9. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
It's common for people with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis to experience an uptick in symptoms like pain, cramping, bloating or diarrhea after eating greasy food. That's particularly true for meals rich in dairy fat, because many people with IBD also have trouble digesting the milk protein lactose, says Dr. Jaswani.
IBD is a serious condition that can also cause rectal bleeding, bloody stools, weight loss or fatigue.
Fix it: Managing IBD typically requires medication to reduce inflammation and prevent flare-ups. These might include aminosalicylates, immunomodulators or biologics, per the Mayo Clinic. Avoiding trigger foods, eating small meals and managing your stress can also help you feel your best. In more severe cases, your doctor might recommend surgery.
How to Get Rid of a Stomachache From Greasy Food
If you suspect you're just dealing with belly pain from overdoing it at dinner, that's easy to treat at home. To manage feeling sick after eating greasy food, Dr. Jaswani recommends stopping eating and taking an over-the-counter antacid like Tums ($7.98, Amazon) or Pepcid AC ($16.41, Amazon), which should help you feel more comfortable.
Home remedies might be soothing, too, like sipping peppermint, ginger or licorice tea. Drinking water after eating also helps. If you're up for it, some gentle stretching or going for a stroll can help take some of the pressure off your stomach by stimulating digestion.
When to See a Doctor About Stomach Pain From Greasy Food
You should let your doctor know if high-fat foods are consistently making your stomach hurt, or if you're experiencing stomach pain along with frequent vomiting, black or bloody stools or unexplained weight loss, Dr. Jaswani says.
That said, if you know you're just a little uncomfortable because you ate too much, there's probably no need for concern. Just try cutting back on how often you eat greasy foods and how much you eat at one time to see if that prevents symptoms like stomach pain or indigestion.
- Mayo Clinic: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Gastritis"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Treatment for GER & GERD"
- Mayo Clinic: "Peptic Ulcer"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Pancreatitis"
- Mayo Clinic: "Inflammatory Bowel Disease"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Gallstones"
- Mayo Clinic: "Gastroparesis"
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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.