Should you go nuts for coconut oil? Lots of people are, based on its apparent health benefits, but research supporting these claims remains limited. When it comes to acid reflux, high-fat foods, especially those high in saturated fat like coconut oil, may actually make your acid indigestion worse.
Read more: The 6 Worst Foods to Eat When You Have GERD
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What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux or acid indigestion, occurs when your stomach contents flow back up into your esophagus (the muscular tube connecting your mouth and stomach), according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). When acid reflux is chronic, it's called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Two key muscles, your lower esophageal sphincter (the muscular valve between your esophagus and stomach) and diaphragm, typically prevent your stomach contents from flowing back up, according to the NIDDK. GERD can develop if your lower esophageal sphincter becomes weak or relaxes when it shouldn't. This might be more likely to happen if you:
- Have overweight or obesity
- Are pregnant
- Smoke or inhale secondhand smoke
Certain medications can contribute to GERD, too. A hiatal hernia, a condition in which part of your stomach slides up through the diaphragm, can also play a part in GERD or make your symptoms worse.
Fats and Acid Reflux
What you eat and drink can trigger your GERD symptoms, and fat is a common culprit. Fats can cause acid reflux for two reasons, says Emily Haller, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
First, high-fat foods tend to decrease the pressure in the lower esophagus, leading to increased reflux. Second, fatty foods are often harder for the body to break down, leaving acid in the stomach for longer periods of time. The longer it sits, the more opportunity it has to backflow and cause symptoms.
Some fats are worse than others for GERD, especially saturated and trans fats. Avoiding these may help ease or reduce reflux symptoms, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD).
Coconut Oil May Trigger Acid Reflux
Coconut oil in particular may be a reflux trigger for some because it's high in fat, Haller says. In fact, coconut oil is 100 percent fat, the majority of which is saturated fat, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Reflux may not be the only reason you might want to avoid excessive saturated fat: In June 2017, the American Heart Association issued an advisory in Circulation to replace saturated fats like coconut oil with unsaturated fats like nuts, avocados, seeds and fish due to their unhealthy effect on the heart and blood vessels.
While fats like coconut oil can make acid reflux worse, Haller stresses that GERD management depends on the individual. You don't need to avoid everything listed as a potential reflux-inducing food, she says. When it comes to your acid reflux, many different factors may play a role in improving your symptoms.
There's no proven "GERD diet," according to the IFFGD, so keeping track of your own triggers is key in managing your reflux. Often, just a few small changes in your diet can lead to improvement in your GERD symptoms.
Prevent Reflux By Avoiding Your Triggers
So, should you stop cooking with coconut oil? Maybe. It depends on your unique reflux triggers. But there are other ways to take control of your reflux. For her patients, Haller recommends:
- Eating smaller and more frequent meals
- Avoiding large meals before bedtime
- Keeping track of which foods are specific triggers
- Lying on the left side during sleep
In addition to these measures, Michigan Medicine suggests making changes such as elevating the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches, stopping smoking and losing excess weight.
Not sure what your reflux triggers are yet? The IFFGD recommends keeping a daily diary of what you eat and your symptoms for one week as a starting place.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Definition & Facts for GER & GERD”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Symptoms & Causes of GER & GERD”
- Emily Haller, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Diet Changes for GERD”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Coconut Oil”
- Circulation: “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association"
- Michigan Medicine: “Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD)”
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.