If you’re like a lot of people, you probably spend some time every day wondering what to eat. What can make this general mulling more complex is if you’re dealing with a digestive health issue, such as stomach ulcers. Stomach ulcers, also referred to as peptic ulcers, are sores in the stomach lining that can cause abdominal pain and discomfort and can potentially lead to internal bleeding.
Finding the best stomach ulcer diet may take a little bit of effort, but there are strategies you can try. An elimination diet — removing foods from your diet and slowly reintroducing them to detect anything troublesome — or trial and error with certain foods can help you pinpoint which items to prioritize and to avoid.
What Is an Ulcer Diet?
Your doctor may recommend making some dietary shifts to alleviate symptoms of stomach ulcers and to support healing. But what exactly should be on the menu depends on what triggers symptoms for you individually.
“There is no specific diet that is recommended by the American Gastroenterological Association or American College of Gastroenterology to promote stomach ulcer healing,” says Dr. Robert Lerrigo, associate chief of gastroenterology and hepatology with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California. “There have been several international studies suggesting certain foods may be helpful, but without larger trials in humans, one cannot definitively say for sure.”
With that ambiguity in mind, a generally healthy diet is considered best in supporting those with stomach ulcers. However, there are some food items that you might try eliminating or prioritizing to see what makes you feel better.
Foods to Eat and Avoid When You Have an Ulcer
Certain foods and drinks can upset your stomach or increase stomach acid production, though there’s not much evidence they can cause or worsen ulcers specifically, says Olivia Vaughn, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Still, because some food and beverage items can irritate your stomach, pay attention to how your body reacts.
Take spicy food, for instance.
“Everybody jumps right to spicy food (to eliminate),” says Dr. Thomas R. Kelley, a family medicine physician with Orlando Health in Florida. “But what’s interesting about that is that’s not always the case. You have to see how it affects you; if spicy food bothers your stomach, avoid that particular food. But it’s not necessarily completely off the menu, so to speak, for folks if they have a history of ulcers.”
If you experience symptoms like burning pain in the middle or upper stomach, bloating after eating or increased heartburn after eating, that’s a sign you should avoid a food, adds Amber Core, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Worst foods to eat
Commonly avoided foods and beverages include:
— Acidic foods like pineapple.
— Citrus fruits.
— Spicy foods.
— Fatty or greasy foods.
— Pepper, including black pepper and other types of peppers.
— Caffeine, including caffeinated sodas.
— Tea, including black and green varieties that contain tannins, which can increase the production of stomach acid.
— Coffee, including decaf.
— Mint, including peppermint and spearmint.
— Carbonated beverages.
— Raw vegetables or salads.
[See: The Best Spices for Health]
Best foods to eat
One key element of your diet may be polyphenols, which are compounds found in fruits and vegetables that support digestion and brain health and provide other health benefits. This area of study is still expanding, but Lerrigo points to a 2015 review of pre-clinical studies that suggests the antioxidant properties of dietary polyphenols can support good gut health. (Antioxidants can reduce inflammation and are believed to be protective against a range of diseases.)
Another study, published in 2020 in the journal Molecules, suggests that flavonoids, the most abundant type of polyphenol in plant foods, might be helpful in both preventing and alleviating peptic ulcers. A 2023 review study in BMJ Open also suggests that polyphenol compounds could eradicate H. pylori infection, a common cause of peptic ulcers.
Among the food items that could potentially prevent or even treat certain types of stomach ulcers, according to the 2015 review, include:
— Curcumin, a compound found in the bright orange spice turmeric.
— The leaves of the betel vine, which come from a family of plants indigenous to southern Asia that includes pepper and kava.
Dr. Roopa Vemulapalli, associate professor in gastroenterology and medical director of the digestive disease clinic at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, notes that alkaline foods can help provide relief from peptic ulcer symptoms as well.
Alkaline and high-fiber foods include:
— Green beans.
— Whole grains.
— Healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocado oil.
— Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, kefir and buttermilk.
— Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, miso, kimchi and plant-based yogurts with active cultures.
If you’re having difficulty eating, opt for healthy foods that are high in calories to make sure you’re meeting your energy needs, adds Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles.
“You may hurt when you eat, you may have cramps, you may have discomfort,” she explains. “It’s good to eat healthy, calorie-rich foods and small, frequent meals. Homemade shakes made with healthy ingredients, such as plant-based yogurt or ice cream, fruit, bananas, peanut butter and avocado, can help.”
Foods with antibacterial or anti-inflammatory properties, such as honey and ginger, can also help support your body’s ability to heal from an ulcer, says Mary Sabat, an ACE-certified personal trainer and nutritionist and owner of BodyDesigns in Alpharetta, Georgia.
How Does An Ulcer Diet Work?
There is no specific diet to follow to heal a peptic ulcer, Core reiterates.
What you can do is find the foods that are right for you. As outlined earlier, avoid foods that exacerbate symptoms, such as those that boost stomach acid production. Second, prioritize fiber-, alkaline- and antioxidant-rich foods, which can lower acid production and help in the healing process. These two steps can help symptom management and support overall health.
Probiotics, the “good” bacteria that promotes the growth of protective gut microorganisms, can also play a key role in mitigating one of the causes of peptic ulcers: an H. pylori infection. A growing body of research, for instance, is showing that fermented foods, like those listed above, might inhibit the activity of H. pylori.
“Recent studies have shown probiotics inhibit colonization and burden of H. pylori infection,” says Dr. Kaunteya Reddy, a gastroenterologist and medical director at Redlands Community Hospital in Redlands, California. “Hence, intake of any foods rich in probiotics, such as yogurt, help during the healing process.”
While science still doesn’t fully understand the connection between the gut microbiome and health, keep in mind that there’s little evidence that probiotic supplements can help. That evidence is also limited to supplements’ use when treating H. pylori bacterial infections. Certain strains of probiotics, however, may reduce diarrhea caused by the antibiotics used to treat H. pylori.
Sabat also notes that managing stress, getting proper rest and staying hydrated can aid in healing.
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Update 08/22/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.