Sometimes it feels like having an air pocket in your abdomen. Other times it’s more like you’ve eaten a whole watermelon and it’s taking up every bit of space in your midsection. Your pants won’t button. You feel sleepy and slow. You affectionately refer to your tummy as a “food baby”.
You know it: You’re bloated. And it’s uncomfortable.
A little bloating is common and can occur in normally functioning bodies regularly throughout the day. When we eat, there are by-products created that take up a little more space in our systems, but can quickly dissipate. We can also have the feeling of being bloated but actually be experiencing water retention. They’re not the same. A little water retention here, a particularly big lunch there, it all depends on what you eat, how you’re hydrated and how your meals are timed. While a little distension can be entirely normal — and there is usually nothing too serious to worry about — more intense or chronic bloating can be an indicator that something is out of balance in your body. Your eating choices or lifestyle choices might need a little tweak.
Put plainly, bloating means having gas built up in your gastrointestinal tract, which causes your stomach distension. Bloating is usually related to digestion, but can also be attributed to candida overgrowth (a “bad” bacteria that can take over your GI tract and cause all kind of icky symptoms), autoimmune conditions like Celiac disease or allergies. For most people, the causes are pretty simple to explain and the symptoms pretty easy to mitigate — as long as you know what you’re looking for. Luckily, paying attention to when and how much you bloat can provide valuable cues as to what your body responds to negatively.
10 Things You Can Do to Beat Bloat
- Chew slowly
Digestion starts in the mouth; our stomachs don’t have teeth because our mouths do. We’re meant to thoroughly break down our food before it reaches the acids in our stomachs so that our digestive organs can do their best work on mostly broken-down food. This means food moves through our systems more expediently and eliminates gas build-up. When we eat too quickly, our GI tracts have to work extra hard to deconstruct our fuel and the bits they can’t break down cause a backup; plus, we lose out on nutrients. Aim to chew every mouthful at least 20 times.
- Eat veggies first in a meal
Picture your intestines as downward-moving escalators and different food groups as people on those escalators. You want to encourage the foods that move the fastest to be towards the bottom of the escalators first. If they’re up at the top, they’ll get stuck behind the slower-moving foods and cause congestion that impacts everyone else trying to get to the bottom. Proteins and fats break down more slowly than carbs like veggies and fruit, so if you’re having a salad and a piece of chicken, it’s ideal to eat the veggies first and the chicken second. Transit time for veggies through the system can be as fast as 6-8 hours; animal proteins can take up to 48 hours depending on your body. If you have the chicken before the veggies, there’s a good chance the carbs will just get stuck behind the slower-moving protein and start to ferment, rather than moving down the escalator. Fermentation equals gas build-up, and gas build-up equals bloating.
- Focus on fiber
While excessive intake of certain fibers (see FODMAPs above) can be problematic for some people, fiber is generally a great tool for digestion and can help to keep things moving. Fiber draws water into the GI tract and “scrubs” the insides of your intestines, helping to keep things moving well and preventing the build-up of food, gas and bad bacteria.
- Drink lots of fluids
Staying hydrated between meals encourages things to keep moving through your system. We rely heavily on water and fluids for smooth digestion, so aim to drink 8-12 glasses of water daily to keep things running well.
- Eat potassium-rich foods
Fruits and veggies that contain ample potassium can help flush excess fluid from the system and encourage GI motility. If sugars aren’t a problem for your gut, check out fruits like mangoes and bananas, or increase your intake of (cooked) spinach and tomatoes to keep your food baby at bay.
- Walk after meals
Going for a walk — or doing some kind of light activity — after a meal has been shown to encourage digestion instead of stagnation. Moving, in general, stimulates digestive activity and helps prevent particles and gas from collecting in your gut.
- Try a probiotic
Stress, artificial sweeteners, alcohol and medication can all take a toll on the colonies of gut bacteria we rely on for smooth digestion. We want to keep them healthy so they can keep us digesting and assimilating our food properly. Almost everyone can benefit from taking a probiotic. Consider one with at least three strains of bacteria to help bolster your gut. These little guys will help break down food and keep it moving efficiently through your body to beat bloating before it happens.
- Try anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric and ginger
Inflammation may be the cause of your puffy tummy. Ginger, turmeric and cinnamon can help bring down digestive inflammation and its symptoms. Try them in cooked curries or soups, or blend into smoothies, tea or sauces.
- Cook your veggies
We all know kale is great for us, and Brussels sprouts are delicious, but they can also be tough for the body to break down in their raw form. Give your body a bit of a break and cut down on digestive by-products by cooking hearty veggies before consuming.
- Try a digestive enzyme
Sometimes a lack of digestive enzymes can cause a slowdown and a buildup of gas. Try taking a papaya or pineapple extract before meals to help your stomach do its best work.
4 Types of Food to Avoid
- High FODMAPS foods
For many people, the inability to digest a certain group of carbohydrates known as FODMAPs can cause excess gas production and digestive slowdown. These small-chain carbs in foods like wheat, onions, apples, tropical fruits, cauliflower and beans draw water in the GI tract, slow movement of the intestines and cause the backed up food to ferment. The gas produced during fermentation takes up space in your gut, causing bloating, distension and for many, constipation. You can try a FODMAP elimination plan to see which types of sugars are problems for you, and in general, keep portions of high-FODMAP foods on the smaller side. Carbs can be good, but a smaller amount per serving may help your body break them down more efficiently.
Dairy — which is also a FODMAP food thanks to its sugar, lactose — may contribute to bloating as well. Whether it’s a sensitivity to lactose or a full-blown allergy, it can be worth exploring to cut down on milk and milk products to see if it helps with your tummy troubles. Avoid it for 1-2 weeks and see if you notice a difference. Yogurt contains beneficial bacteria that can be a boon to bloat, so try incorporating it if it’s not a problematic food for you (just look for unsweetened varieties).
- Artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners confuse the good bacteria in our systems. While these bugs usually help us digest and utilize our food, their efforts to break down artificial sugars (which they ultimately cannot break down) produce excess gas. Consuming fake sweeteners can also decrease populations of good bacteria — we need those bugs in full force if we want to avoid digestive trouble.
- Carbonated drinks
Whether your vice is soda, beer or prosecco, if it contains carbonation, it might be the cause of your tummy’s troubles. Air bubbles can become trapped in the system and cause distension. In addition, beer and other alcoholic beverages are very dehydrating. A dehydrated GI tract is a slow-moving GI tract, and a slow-moving GI tract can be prone to bloating.