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Digestive Upset: Could It Be the Food You Just Ate?

A woman experiencing stomach pain while lying on the sofa

Some foods taste great going down, but it doesn’t take long before they exact a price.

For many people, certain foods and beverages are famous for triggering digestive discomfort such as heartburn – or acid reflux – a common problem that occurs when excessive stomach acid backs up into the esophagus.

“Food can be a factor that worsens symptoms, but it’s not always the only reason that patients have symptoms,” says University Hospitals gastroenterologist Fady Haddad, MD. “They can have anatomical problems, such as a hiatal hernia for example.”

Can Some Foods Cause a Bowel Movement Right Away?

Sometimes it seems like what you ate goes right through you.

Generally speaking, it takes around 24 to 72 hours for food to pass through the digestive tract. But it can vary widely, depending on types of food, metabolism, underlying medical problems and other factors, Dr. Haddad says.

If you eat something and have to run to the bathroom, the likely reason is gastro-colic reflex, which causes an urge to have a bowel movement after we eat, Dr, Haddad says.

“It kind of makes room for more food to come, but it is not what we just ate that’s coming out,” he says.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

An increasingly recognized cause of indigestion (upset stomach) and bloating, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can at least be partially managed by dietary changes.

People with IBS are advised to follow a low FODMAP diet and to avoid gas-producing foods, Dr. Haddad says.

“Practically foods to be avoided include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beans, onions, celery, apricots, prunes, carrots, raisins,” he says.

Food Intolerance

Certain people, especially those with lactose intolerance, are advised to avoid dairy products, whereas patients with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease are advised to avoid gluten in their diet.

Physical activity and stress reduction will also help improve symptoms of indigestion and bloating, Dr. Haddad says.

Upset Stomach and Heart Burn

Regardless of the cause, a key to treating upset stomach and heartburn is avoiding the triggers. They include:

  • Spicy foods
  • Juices
  • Soda
  • Citrus fruits
  • Caffeine (coffee and tea)
  • Tomatoes
  • Chocolate
  • Fried and fatty food
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen and other pain relievers.
  • Alcohol

“These are the most common foods that we tell patients to avoid,” Dr. Haddad says.

“We understand that it is hard for some people to completely avoid some foods,” he adds. “That’s why we have alternatives such as drinking decaffeinated coffee or diluting small amounts of soda or juice with water.”

Other food-related recommendations to manage heartburn and upset stomach include:

  • Eat dinner early. If you eat close to bedtime, there’s a greater chance that acid will come up while you’re laying down. Same thing happens if you lay down directly after eating during the day.
  • Sleep with two pillows. The elevation will reduce the odds of acid backing up.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals (five or so a day), rather than three large meals.

“The less you eat at once, the less acid you will have,” Dr. Haddad says. “These lifestyle changes are very important. They are the main driver of treatment.”


Similarly, behavioral changes can help to relieve symptoms of gastritis, an inflammation of the lining of the stomach.

Symptoms of gastritis include stomach discomfort after eating; nausea, bloating or vomiting. Some people with gastritis can develop stomach ulcers, which can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding and other complications.

Alcohol and long-term use of NSAIDs, in particular, should be avoided, Dr. Haddad says. Gastritis can also be caused by a bacteria in the stomach which should be treated.

“The main behavioral recommendation is to avoid alcohol and NSAIDs,” Dr. Haddad says. “Symptoms of gastritis can be worsened by some types of food, mainly spices, fried and fatty foods, citrus and acidic foods and beverages.”

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