What Causes Bloating and What to Eat to Get Rid of It, From an RD
That tight, stuffed, extended feeling in your lower abdomen that makes it feel like you've swallowed a balloon? That’s bloating, and it has likely happened to all of us at some point in time since one study found that19 percent of people say they've experienced bloating on a regular basis.
But what causes bloating and how can we eat to alleviate it or avoid it altogether? There are foods that help fight bloat and others that contribute to it. Here's what science tells us about bloating and its relationship to diet.
Technically bloating happens when air or gas gets into our gastrointestinal tract (the entirety of our digestive system from our mouth all the way down to our rectum), and it can create a feeling of fullness that is uncomfortable and may actually cause our stomach to expand.
While some of us may be more prone to bloating than others, there is a reason behind it and useful tips to get rid of it, beyond just pulling on our stretchy pants and waiting it out.
What causes bloating?
One of the main causes of bloating is an accumulation of gas, typically after we eat. This gas occurs due to swallowing excess air. According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, swallowed air can occur for many reasons including:
- Postnasal drip
- Eating too quickly
- Chewing gum or sucking on hard candy
- Dentures that don’t fit properly
There are also certain foods that can produce more gas than others when they are eaten. Most of the time it’s carbohydrate-rich foods since protein and fat are less gas-forming. Complex carbohydrates are harder for your body to break down due to the type of sugars and other compounds they contain. These include:
- Raffinose, lactose, fructose, and sorbitol (all naturally occurring sugars)
- Starches (except rice)
- Fiber, which is actually healthy and not to be avoided
The reason behind these gas-forming compounds is that we are either lacking the enzyme to break them down or in the case of insoluble fibers, we can’t break them down at all. For example, lactose (found in dairy products) requires an enzyme called lactase to fully digest. Individuals who are lactose intolerant don’t create enough of this enzyme, leading to gastrointestinal discomfort whenever they eat foods that contain lactose, such as milk, cheese, ice cream, or foods that contain dairy. In another example, high fiber foods such as celery or cruciferous vegetables go through our digestive system intact, which is normal, and healthy, but in the gut, our bacteria try to break it down, which leads to it fermenting and forming gas – since our body's healthy gut bacteria like to feed on this type of fiber.
The following foods are the most likely to cause gas according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders.
- Beans (including chickpeas and all legumes)
- Veggies that include artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and onion
- Fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, bananas, prune, and apricots
- Whole grains and bran
- Carbonated beverages
- Milk and dairy products
- Foods that contain sorbitol (a type of sugar alcohol)
So how do you avoid bloat? Completely avoiding all gas-forming foods is not the way to go, since these foods also contain important nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that are beneficial for immunity, gut health, and disease prevention. Instead, it's best to pinpoint a specific food (or group) that may be causing your bloat, and eliminate those items one at a time to see if it helps.
Other causes of bloating
According to John Hopkins Medicine, you could have a condition that makes you more susceptible to bloating, and if your bloating is frequent, painful, or disruptive to your everyday activities you'll want to see a doctor who can figure out if you might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome or a food allergy or auto-immune condition. Bloating is also caused by:
- Gluten intolerance or Celiac's Disease
- Gastroparesis (delayed emptying of the stomach)
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
Prevent bloating with the FODMAP diet
The good news: you don’t have to cope with constant bloating, but it will take some effort on your end to prevent it. According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, bloating can be prevented by changing your diet and reducing the amount of air swallowed.
When it comes to diet change, one good way to pinpoint what foods are making you bloat is to try the FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. John Hopkins Medicine states that these are all short-chain sugars that our small intestine often can’t absorb properly, leading to digestive distress such as gas and bloating.
A low FODMAP diet works is by following 3 steps. They include:
- Stop eating high FODMAP foods for approximately 2 to 6 weeks
- Slowly reintroduce them one by one, to see which bothers you the most
- Once you figure out which are problematic, you can avoid them while still being able to enjoy the other foods that don’t cause you bloating
High FODMAP foods include the ones listed above, and low FODMAP foods are:
- Almond milk
- Grains such as rice, quinoa, and oats
- Vegetables that include eggplant, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini
- Fruits that include grapes, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, and pineapple
You’re bloating could also be coming from the fact that you went from eating a low-fiber diet to adding too many high-fiber foods into your diet at once. (Such as when you swear off your usual junk food diet and start eating salads and grain bowls all of a sudden.) While fiber is a beneficial nutrient, it should be gradually increased so that your gut microbiome can shift over to healthy bacteria, when you can comfortably tolerate the 21 to 25 grams of fiber per day that is recommended for women and 30 to 38 grams per day recommended for men.
In order to limit the amount of air you swallow, make sure that you’re eating your meals slowly and avoid gulping down food, chewing gum or making a habit of sucking on hard candies.
When to see a doctor about persistent or painful bloating
Don’t take bloating with a grain of salt. Sometimes it can indicate a serious underlying health problem. According to GI Associates & Endoscopy Center, you should go see your doctor ASAP if you have any of the following symptoms, along with persistent bloating:
- Bloody stools or vaginal bleeding: This could indicate ovarian cancer. Rush University states that persistent bloating and a “full” feeling are some of the early signs of ovarian cancer that go undetected because women don't know what to look for.
- Diverticulitis: This is when pouches in the lining of your intestines become infected or inflamed. This can lead to bloating, abdominal pain, and fever. You'll need to get antibiotics as soon as possible to keep the infection from spreading so call your doc.
- Ascites: This is when fluid builds up in the abdomen. Typically, this indicates liver disease, but if bloating is paired with jaundice (yellowing of the skin) it could also indicate liver cancer. If you ever have yellowing of the skin call your doctor.
- Fever: whenever you’re dealing with a fever, especially when it includes other symptoms such as bloating, it usually means there is inflammation or an infection happening somewhere in the body. Your doctor will need to take your blood to help her pinpoint exactly what may be going on.
Bottom Line: Try to treat bloating with diet, but if it persists, call your doctor
In order to prevent bloating, you will likely need to adjust your diet, cut out dairy and try going on the low-FODMAP diet.
Then add back in fiber foods one at a time to see if anything you're eating is causing bloating or sensitivity in your gut. If you incorporate tips to prevent bloating, and it still persists or gets worse, it’s important to make an appointment to see your doctor ASAP.