by Rachel Stuck, RDN
You may expect to feel bloated after an extra-large holiday meal topped off with a slice of apple pie. You may even prepare for overindulgence by wearing your most forgiving pair of leggings or elastic-waist pants. But sometimes, it feels like bloating visits unexpectedly and then sticks around too long.
Bloating is a common annoyance that occurs when gas builds up in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, causing you to feel overstuffed and uncomfortable. Gas buildup is typically the result of either unintentionally swallowing air or overproduction of gas by gut bacteria. The gas causes the abdomen to become distended and puts pressure on the diaphragm, the muscular barrier between the abdomen and the chest. Pressure on the diaphragm can cause discomfort, shortness of breath, and acid reflux.
It is normal to experience bloating and gas once in a while in response to a large meal, stress, travel, or eating at abnormal times of the day. However, if you start to notice a constant feeling of bloating and discomfort, it might be time to assess the health of your gut bacteria. The population and diversity of the bacteria that populate your gut play a role in how food is broken down and metabolized. An imbalance of bacteria in the gut can result in severe reactions to a variety of foods, whereas balanced and diverse gut bacteria will help prevent bloating, gas, pain, and inflammation within the GI tract.
Below are some tips to help you reduce the occurrence of bloating and alleviate bloating and discomfort when it arises.
Overeating is the most common cause of bloating and GI discomfort. To prevent overeating, try using a smaller plate to control portion sizes. You might notice that you are just as satisfied as you would be with larger portions on a standard ten-inch dinner plate. While eating, put your fork down between bites, avoid distractions like the television, and practice mindful eating. Putting your fork down and being mindful of how well you chew your food will allow the fullness hormone leptin time to signal the brain that the stomach is full.
Your gut bacteria also react to overeating. Eating a large amount of food in one sitting gives gut bacteria a feast of fibers. As your gut bacteria break down the fibers, they produce gas. The gas can then build up in the GI tract, which slows digestion and prolongs bloating.
Fatty foods cause bloating because they are digested slowly. This includes both healthy fats, like avocados, nuts, and seeds, less-healthy options like fried food and vegetable oils, and processed foods like chips and pastries. When you include high-fat foods in a meal, consider eliminating refined carbohydrates like pasta and white rice, which are easy to overindulge in. The combination of a large volume of foods with a high-fat food will leave you feeling bloated and prolong the uncomfortable bloated feeling.
Don’t avoid foods that contain healthy fat. Instead, do your best to include healthy fats in the proper portion sizes and pair them with other gut-healthy foods like vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. This Lemon Dijon Baked Salmon recipe includes a full dose of healthy fat and protein.
If you are not overeating or overindulging in fatty foods, starting a food journal is a good way to find the cause of bloating. List your daily intake of foods and beverages and note your activities to help you understand which combinations of food trigger your bloating. For example, people often feel bloated if they drink a large volume of water or carbonated beverage before eating a meal. This can occur even if the beverage is calorie-free, like water or seltzer. Common foods that cause bloating are beans, lentils, high-fiber foods, sweeteners (both caloric and calorie-free), and carbonated beverages. Chewing gum and drinking from a straw are also known to cause bloating.
If you find that a specific food is causing your symptoms, you have two options: continue including this food in very small amounts to see if your body and gut bacteria will adjust to being able to digest the food without feeling uncomfortable, or completely remove the food from your diet. Take into consideration your personal enjoyment of the food and the severity of symptoms.
When bloating sets in, it might feel best to relax on your couch for the night. However, gentle exercise like yoga, stretching, and walking can help alleviate discomfort by moving gas through the digestive system. Consider going for a walk, doing light household chores, or gently exercising after meals to promote digestion. This will not prevent bloating from recurring, but it will relieve your symptoms a little faster.
Staying hydrated promotes digestion and helps you avoid mindless snacking. Getting enough fluid is a key factor in ensuring that food is able to move through the digestive tract, reducing the occurrence of both bloating and constipation. If you are prone to constipation, you might find that bloating is also a common struggle. The good news is that proper hydration can alleviate both symptoms.
Drink at least twelve ounces of water when you get out of bed and before you go to sleep. Then, find ways to include more water in your routine. Carrying a water bottle and setting an alarm on your phone will remind you to drink water or caffeine-free tea throughout the day.
If you find that bloating is coupled with other GI symptoms and you have not been able to pinpoint the foods or lifestyle practices that are causing it, a low FODMAP diet might be a beneficial next step. The FODMAP diet is a short-term elimination diet that can help individuals with ongoing GI distress, such as bloating, determine which foods are causing their symptoms.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. Put more simply, FODMAP foods are fermentable carbohydrates. FODMAP foods include a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy products, seeds, and beans that contain any of the saccharides or carbohydrates listed above. You will want to avoid foods that contain these carbohydrates initially when starting a low FODMAP diet to find what is causing your GI discomfort. It may seem complicated, but it’s a simple matter of choosing from a variety of common foods and avoiding others. Keeping a list of preferred foods handy when grocery shopping or eating out will ensure that you make the right FODMAP choices.
Low-FODMAP-friendly foods include blueberries, strawberries, kiwis, citrus fruits, carrots, celery, spinach, potatoes, rice, oats, cornmeal, gluten-free bread, and lactose-free milk products.
For more information about the low FODMAP diet and foods, check out Low FODAMP Diet, Simplified.
The gut is home to a wide variety of bacteria that vary depending on an individual’s diet and lifestyle. A poor diet and stressful lifestyle can lead to an imbalance of gut bacteria, meaning that your gut is home to more “bad” bacteria than good. This imbalance can make you prone to bloating, even when you feel that you are eating within your limits. To help rebalance your gut bacteria and reduce the risk of sudden bloating, consider avoiding refined carbohydrates like white bread, packaged snack foods, alcohol, and sugary drinks. Instead, enjoy nutritious foods like leafy green vegetables and easy-to-digest fruit like blueberries and strawberries. With a restoration of good bacteria, you will feel better and be able to wear your favorite pants without worrying about the buttons popping off.
Consider adopting one or two of these tips to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria and manage your bloating. Give yourself time to problem solve and better understand your symptoms so that you can start to make small changes to your daily routine. If you notice persistent discomfort after all meals, consider discussing your symptoms with a doctor.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Rachel Stuck has a background in culinary arts and nutrition counseling. Rachel takes a positive approach to nutrition: she avoids recommending restrictive diets and instead focuses on helping people choose foods that promote health and well-being. She is passionate about empowering and assisting Ixcela members as they develop their unique, gut-healthy lifestyles.
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