Let’s talk about bloating. Whether it’s the fullness and discomfort that sets in after a big meal or the puffy side effect of it being that time of the month, we’ve all felt it and dealt with it. But did you know there are steps you can take from a diet and lifestyle perspective to mitigate bloating? Here, we break down what causes abdominal bloat and the best ways to avoid it.
What Causes Bloating?
Abdominal bloating occurs when the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is filled with gas or air. Externally, it can cause distended or puffy appearance in the lower abdomen. Internally, there may be pain or hardness in the stomach, increased flatulence, belching, and more. As Jennifer Hanway, a board certified holistic nutritionist, explains, there are a variety of factors that can lead to someone feeling bloated:
1. You’re Eating Wrong
“On a very basic level, bloating can be caused by eating too much food, not chewing your food properly, and eating too quickly,” Hanway shares. If you’ve ever wanted to undo a button or two after a meal, you know the sheer volume of food in the GI tract can impact how you feel. When it comes to chewing, Hanway says both mechanical and chemical digestion occurs in the mouth. “If you do not chew your food properly, you will not secrete specific enzymes that are only found in the mouth,” she explains of the digestive process. When your mother used to tell you not to inhale your food, it wasn’t just to refine your manners. Swallowing a surplus of air while eating causes it to be trapped in the GI tract. That extra air causes — you guessed it — bloating.
2. Your Gut Is Imbalanced
As we covered in our article about the relationship between gut health and skin health, the gut is made up of a combination of good and bad bacteria. Disrupting that balance can lead to an array of conditions, bloating among them. “Dysbiosis, which is an unhealthy gut microbiome, can cause bloating as the bacteria ferments the food in the stomach, as can an overgrowth of yeast, such as candida,” Hanway says. “Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (a.k.a. SIBO) can also be a cause of bloating.”
3. You’re Stressed or Hormonal
“Stress can also be a cause [because] when we are in fight or flight mode our ‘non-essential’ systems, such as digestion, are slowed down,” Hanway says. Another time digestion slows? During the luteal phase of menstruation (i.e. right after ovulation). At that point in a woman’s cycle, progesterone levels are elevated, which delays GI transit time. The slower the food moves through the digestive tract, the more likely you are to feel bloated. This explains why many women experience bloating on a monthly basis.
While bloating technically impacts everyone equally, Hanway has noticed a trend among the women she treats. “I often see bloating in women more than men, as years of being on the contraceptive pill can negatively affect our gut microbiome which can lead to bloating,” she says.
Foods That Cause Bloating
No matter the cause of your bloating, eating certain types of food can exacerbate the condition. Hanways puts the worst offenders into three categories:
- Highly Processed Foods: “These are often high in sugar, which can cause an overgrowth of bacteria/yeast in the gut, and high in unhealthy fats, which can cause inflammation,” she says.
- High FODMAP Foods: “These are foods that have a high amount of a certain type of fiber that feeds our gut bacteria and causes fermentation and bloating,” Hanway explains. “Some of the worst offenders can be beans, lentils, cauliflower, onions, and garlic.”
- Food Intolerances: These vary depending on the individual, but sensitivities to certain types of food can trigger an inflammatory response in the gut “Typically, I see gluten and dairy as the two most common food intolerances,” she says.
If you are looking for the fastest way to a flatter stomach, try to minimize your consumption of the following:
Whether it’a a can of Coke or glass of seltzer, carbonated beverages of any kind can cause bloating. Since carbonated drinks are filled with air, they naturally add more volume to the stomach. Sweetened options, meanwhile, pack a double whammy since many contain sugar alcohols that the body struggles to digest.
Generally speaking, vegetables are an essential part of a well-balanced diet. But it’s important to keep in mind that cruciferous veggies (think: cauliflower, cabbage, kale, arugula, brussels sprouts) can cause gas and bloating due to the presence of raffinose, a non-digestible carbohydrate. Rather than eliminate them from your diet completely, eat them in small quantities or substitute them for carrots, peppers, cucumbers, fennel, artichokes, and string beans.
Some people digest dairy products just fine, while others experience sensitivity or complete intolerance. Those who are lactose intolerant (i.e. digest the milk sugar lactose), for example, deal with bloating and discomfort when they consume products with lactose.
HIGH FAT FOODS
While hamburgers and French fries scream ‘summer,’ they may not be your best friend when it comes to belly bloat. Our digestive system processes fat slower than proteins and carbs, which means it sits in our stomachs longer — hence, why you feel ‘heavy’ after a fatty meal.
HIGH SODIUM FOODS
Put down the salt shaker. Salty foods taste delicious but can lead to water retention (among other things). When we introduce too much sodium into our body, we retain water to balance it out. In other words, excess sodium means excess water weight, which creates bloat.
Like cruciferous vegetables, legumes are a part of a healthy diet. But chickpeas, beans, lentils, peas, and the like contain raffinose sugars that may disrupt digestion. Enjoying them in moderation can prevent discomfort, as can cooking them with kombu, a dried seaweed, that has the enzymes our bodies lack to digest raffinose.
How to Debloat
Now that you know what foods to avoid (or consume in moderation) to thwart bloating, you should also know that there are foods that can aid digestion and even help debloat.
- Probiotic-rich foods (dairy-free yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut)
- Herbal teas (ginger, dandelion, fennel)
- Fresh pineapple
- Collagen-rich bone broth
“Probiotic rich foods can be helpful, but keep them to one serving a day,” Hanway says. “I also love herbal teas. And fresh pineapple contains an enzyme called bromelain, which can boost digestion.”
While sporadic bloating is rarely a cause for concern, Hanway says it’s important to be proactive. “Occasional bloating can be perfectly normal,” she says. “But if it's constant or consistent, then improving your gut health is key.” Her advice? “Keep processed foods to a minimum, consider eliminating gluten and dairy (or take a food intolerance test), take a daily probiotic, and include healing and fermented foods,” she says. “And don’t forget the simple things such as chewing your food and managing your stress.”
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