What Causes Bloating? 16 Reasons You May Feel Bloated, and What to Do About It
Because the discomfort is real.
What does bloating feel like?
One thing's for sure: Feeling bloated is quite uncomfortable. And though bloat rarely signals something serious and typically goes away after several hours (eased up by moving around, drinking water, and just waiting it out), it can still make you feel pretty terrible.
Luckily, you don't have to live with that uncomfortable bloat forever. Here, doctors weigh in on all the reasons why you might be so bloated—and what you can do to feel better, ASAP.
You ate too fast
The pace of life has us all in a hurry, but if that leaves you in a rush to eat, be warned: besides food, you're also swallowing gas-producing air, which can make you feel bloated. Trapped air isn't the only bloat trigger here. "When you eat in a rush, you don't chew thoroughly, and that leads to larger food pieces sitting in your gut, waiting to be fully digested," New York City nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg, RD, of Middleberg Nutrition, tells Health. Another speed-eating danger: you lose track of how much you're consuming, and stuffing yourself makes you feel stuffed. Instead of eating on the run, carve out at least 20 minutes for a slower sit-down meal. That's how long it takes your brain to register fullness, signaling that it's time to put your fork down so you don't overdo it.
Your go-to lunch is a sandwich
Even the healthiest sammies tend to be packed with sodium. A recent USDA study discovered that the sodium content in the typical sandwich can chew up 20% of your sodium allowance, says Janet Brill, PhD, RD, a Philadelphia-area nutritionist and author of Blood Pressure Down. And a 2012 CDC study listed the top sodium-loaded foods, many of which were sandwich staples. "Bread and rolls ranked as the number-one source of sodium in the typical American diet, and deli meat was number two, with cheese not far behind," says Brill. The CDC recommends keeping sodium intake under 2,300 mg, and you can stay within that number and prevent sodium-induced bloat by alternating your sandwich habit with other foods or forgoing the bread and wrapping it a crisp piece of romaine lettuce.
You consume your kale raw
Packed with essential vitamins, kale has a well-deserved reputation as a trendy salad superstar. Thing is, this cruciferous vegetable contains so much hard-to-break-down fiber and an indigestible sugar called raffinose that consuming it raw in a smoothie or salad may bring on gas and puffiness, says Middleberg. Kale is not the only veggie offender; other cruciferous greens like Brussels sprouts and broccoli have the same effect. "Cut down on the bloating by eating less kale and cooking the kale you do eat by steaming or roasting it," suggests Middleberg. You still get the nutrients, but cooking helps soften the fiber and shrink the volume of kale you consume, so it doesn't take up so much gut-busting room in your small intestines.
You drink through a straw
Coffee, fruit smoothies, green juice—these days, all kinds of drinks are designed to be sipped through a straw. But as convenient as they are, straws force you to suck in lots of extra air—and that can make you feel like an inflatable ball, says Middleberg. It doesn't make a difference how slowly or deeply you sip; you're taking in the air already trapped in the upper part of the straw, and it's impossible to avoid. Whenever you can, sip your drinks from the rim of the glass.
You eat lots of packaged foods
Once again, the culprit here is sodium—it's used as a preservative for tons of processed convenience foods. You know that crackers and chips are sodium bombs, but even healthy-looking items such as soups, salad dressings, cereals, and tomato sauce can have crazy-high amounts of sodium that easily lead you to exceed the 2,300 mg daily recommended limit. "It's a good bet that pretty much any product that comes wrapped in a package contains more sodium than you'd think, and you're unlikely to even taste the salt," says Brill. Dodge the belly-bloating effects by reading labels and going for packaged foods that contain less than 500 mg per serving. And of course, try to cut back on the processed stuff and fill your plate with naturally low-sodium or sodium-free fresh fruits, grains, and veggies.
You choose diet or low-cal products
Artificial sugars such as aspartame and sucralose have been added to everything from diet beverages to gum and candy. But the low or no calories come at a cost. While the FDA has recognized zero-cal sugar substitutes as safe, they're serious bloat inducers. Artificial sweeteners hang around your stomach a long time because your system doesn't digest them well (or at all). Makes sense, considering that they contain nothing your system recognizes as actual food, says Middleberg. "Banish them from your diet, and you'll feel instant relief," she says.
You just can't give up your soda habit
The same tiny bubbles that give soda and sparkling water that bubbly sensation also cause your stomach to swell, says Middleberg. Diet soda is an even worse bloater since artificial sweeteners can't be digested.
Really can't live without you fizz fix? Cut down on the carbonation by leaving it open for a few hours before drinking it or by pouring the drink into a cup with ice cubes.
You're a big fan of beans
Kidney, pinto, black, red—beans (plus their legume cousins, lentils and chickpeas) are an awesome source of high-quality plant protein. Unfortunately the carbohydrates in beans tend to be indigestible, and that's what gives them their gassy, belly-bloating reputation, says Brill. Thing is, beans boost the health of so many dishes, from chili to soup to burritos, that it would be a nutritional crime to dump them out of your diet entirely. The solution: take an over-the-counter anti-gas product such as Beano along with your beans. "These contain the enzyme we're missing that makes the carbohydrates digestible," says Brill. "It's safe to take, and it prevents the uncomfortable puffy feeling."
You chew gum or suck on candy
Gum and hard candy keep your mouth occupied, which can help you lose weight or quit smoking. But they too cause you to inadvertently gulp lots of excess air. And as with using a straw and eating too fast, excessive air can lead to belching and bloat. Try giving up the gum and suckers and instead take frequent sips of water—that will keep your mouth busy too. There's a bonus to H2O as well: plain water helps keep your GI tract moving, and that gets rid of excess air and water bloating out your system, Alissa Rumsey, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Health.
You eat dinner too close to bedtime
If you eat a typical-sized dinner within an hour or two of hitting the sack, you're setting yourself up for morning discomfort. Lying down impairs digestion, so if you hit the bed with food in your stomach, it won't be broken down as quickly, leaving you bloated in the a.m., says Rumsey. It's not always easy to shift your schedule, but try having supper at least three to four hours before turning in for the night. Stay on your feet as much as possible to keep things moving before you fall asleep. If you have no choice but to eat right before bedtime, make it something small, like a piece of fruit or yogurt, and refuel with a bigger meal at breakfast, when your metabolism is running high again and your body will benefit from the energy jolt.
You ignore food allergy symptoms
Despite all the attention food allergies score these days (gluten-free mania, anyone?), most of us aren't affected by them. Still, some allergies and sensitivities are a little-known reason for belly expansion. People with a wheat allergy who can't digest gluten often deal with digestive issues and bloating, and if you're lactose intolerant, you'll also experience lots of distention and discomfort, says Rumsey. If you find yourself frequently feeling like bloated and none of these other factors seem to be the cause, check in with your doctor and ask to be tested for food allergies and sensitivities.
You ate a lot of carbs
Carbs seem harmless enough, but there are a few ways they can cause your stomach to puff up, Deborah Cohen, DCN, RDN, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Health Professions Clinical and Preventive Nutritional Sciences Department, tells Health. Complex carbs like garbanzo beans, kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, split peas, and lentils are high in fiber and they can cause gas and bloating. It’s all thanks to the bacteria in your gut, which produces gas as a byproduct of digesting fiber.
That doesn’t mean you should ditch all high fiber foods, though. Instead, Cohen says, you’ll want to pivot to foods with fiber that won’t cause you to puff up, like tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, cucumbers, and green beans.
If you have a gluten sensitivity, eating carbs that contain gluten like bread or crackers can lead to bloat, Cohen says. If you suspect that this is what’s being your bloat, Cohen recommends consulting your doctor or a nutritionist for dietary guidance.
You ate a little too much
Sometimes your full cues don’t catch up with your brain fast enough, and you end up having a little too much to eat. Overeating can make you feel blah, and the bloating that can come with it isn’t exactly a picnic, either.
At baseline, overeating can cause bloating because it’s just a lot of food for your gut bacteria to work through, Cohen says. But that’s especially true “when a lot of gas-forming foods are also consumed—legumes, broccoli, cauliflower—or a lot of carbonated beverages,” she adds.
If you overate once and dealt with bloat in the aftermath, just chalk it up to a life lesson learned. But if you find that this is happening regularly to you, you’ll want to make some tweaks to try to prevent overeating in the first place, Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet, tells Health. One tip, per Gans: “To make that easier to do, try eating on a smaller plate or bowl, so your portions are smaller to begin with,” she says. Talking to a nutritionist about your eating habits can also help, she says.
Being stopped up can also come with not-so-fun side effects like pain and bloating. The reason for it is simple, Gans says: The longer your poop hangs out in your colon, the more time bacteria can ferment, leading to gassy build-up.
To take out bloating from constipation, you really need to get things moving down there again. “Increasing your fiber intake with foods such as fruits, veggies, 100% whole grains, and legumes on a daily basis may help alleviate constipation,” Gans says. Exercise and drinking plenty of fluids—the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends having about 11.5 cups of fluid daily—can also help, Cohen says.
You had a lot of fructose
Fructose is a type of sugar and, if you want to get really technical, it’s a two-unit sugar molecule that’s a part of sucrose, Cohen says. And, yep, it can make you bloat.
“A lot of fructose in the gut attracts water into the gut,” Cohen explains. And that can lead to feelings of fullness and bloating. Prevention is really the way to go here. Fructose appears in a lot of sugar-free gums and candies, as well as apple juice and honey, Cohen says. If it seems like fructose could be behind your bloat, it’s time to scale back. Also, it’s a good idea to see your doctor—you may have a fructose intolerance.
You've been eating a high FODMAP diet
In case you’re not familiar with them, FODMAPs—aka, fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols—are a type of carbohydrate that’s not easily digested. Because of that, they can lead to stomach pain and bloating, Cohen says. There are a bunch of different high FODMAP foods, but some of the biggest culprits include apples, legumes, milk and dairy products, mushrooms, honey, and even garlic. Given how many foods are FODMAPs, it can be tough to follow a low FODMAP diet, Cohen points out—so talk to your doctor or a nutritionist for guidance.
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