We’ve all experienced the dreaded belly bloat now—you know, that uncomfortable feeling of fullness in your stomach. Typically, it crops up after a big meal, or one too many beers, or something we probably shouldn’t have eaten because it just doesn’t make us feel good.
The good news? In most cases, a bloated belly is temporary, and it’s something you can usually avoid pretty easily. The key to keeping belly bloat at bay is to know all the different reasons bloat happens, so you can steer clear of each one—or quickly ease any bloating that does slip in and strike. Here are 10 belly bloat causes to be aware of.
Two words: food baby. We’ve all been there. When we eat more than we usually do, our stomachs stretch out to accommodate the volume of food, Gina Sam, MD, gastroenterologist in New York City, tells Health. “The muscle stretches out, and that in itself can cause bloating,” Dr. Sam explains. Luckily, if eating that much is a one-off, it won't take long for your stomach will snap back to normal.
Preventing overeating might not be as simple as it sounds. If you go too long without a meal and don’t eat until you're starving, it’s easy to let your eyes be bigger than your stomach and dive into a monstrous plate of everything you can get your hands on. Dr. Sam suggests eating small, frequent meals to keep your hunger in check leading up to dinner and drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
2. Gas-producing foods
Some of our favorite greens, like kale, broccoli, and cabbage, fall into the cruciferous vegetable category. This means they contain a sugar called raffinose, which sits in your gut until bacteria ferment it. That produces gas, which then makes you bloat, Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health contributing nutrition editor, said previously. Legumes, apples, and anything super salty can also cause your stomach to swell.
So slow your roll, but that doesn’t mean you need to totally cut these things out of your diet permanently. "Consistently eating nutrient-rich, high-fiber foods leads to having a stronger, healthier digestive system that's less prone to bloating," Sass said. Basically, the more you eat raffinose-heavy vegetables, the less they’ll bother you. Plus, there are ways to make these foods easier to digest, like steaming veggies to soften the fiber.
3. Swallowing air
This might sound obvious, but when you’re chewing and swallowing your meal, you’re also swallowing air. Your intestines can handle a certain amount of air, but if you’re in a rush and gulp down your lunch in under three minutes, you’ll likely swallow more air than usual, causing your belly to inflate, Dr. Sam says.
To prevent yourself from taking in too much air, Dr. Sam suggests eating slowly, avoiding carbonated beverages, and steering clear of straws. When you do feel bloated from trapped air, you'll expel it by burping, passing gas, or going to the bathroom. Ah, the body's natural remedies.
4. Lactose intolerance
If you wash down a big meal with a glass of milk or load up on dairy-infused desserts and suddenly feel your stomach roll over the top of your pants, you could be lactose intolerant. That means your body lacks the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, the sugar found in dairy products, Michael Nusbaum, MD, bariatric surgeon and founder of Healthy Weight Loss Centers, tells Health.
Luckily, there are plenty of equally delicious dairy-free milk options these days, including almond milk and soy milk. The American Gastroenterological Association also suggests taking lactase tablets like Lactaid, which can help you digest foods that contain lactose.
5. Sugar intolerance
Sugar is another food many people develop an intolerance to. A common type of intolerance is a sensitivity to carbs like fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, which are part of a group called FODMAPs, Brooke Alpert, RD, founder of New York City nutrition practice B Nutritious, previously told Health.
To make things even more confusing, FODMAPs aren’t just found in sweets; they’re also in veggies like cabbage, broccoli, and asparagus. If you have a FODMAP intolerance, your stomach will feel achy, bloated, and gassy after eating foods with these sugars. Avoiding trigger foods is the best treatment, so go easy on the veggie casseroles if you suspect you might have this kind of food sensitivity.
6. Celiac disease
For people with celiac disease, gluten-free isn’t a trend, it’s a fact of life. Celiac isn’t an allergy or a sensitivity; it’s an autoimmune disease triggered by the ingestion of gluten, Dr. Nusbaum says. That means when you take in gluten, your body actually attacks itself, causing damage to the small intestine.
Celiac can manifest in a number of ways, but some of the many symptoms include abdominal bloating and pain, vomiting, weight-loss, fatigue, joint pain, and sores inside the mouth. If you consume food with gluten, the bloat can come on soon after. It can be hard to spot celiac because these symptoms are common for many other conditions as well. The only way to truly know if you have this autoimmune disease is to be screened by a doctor.
7. Food allergies
Why do some people love things like peanuts and shellfish and others can be hospitalized from eating them? "With a food allergy, the body's immune system, which normally fights infections, sees a food as an invader,” Sass said previously. “This leads to an immune response in which chemicals like histamine are released, triggering symptoms such as breathing problems, throat tightness and swelling, hoarseness, coughing, and hives.” Another symptom: abdominal bloat, which can hit if you consume something you're allergic to.
If you avoid whole grains and vegetables, then feel bloated hours after a meal, your bloat could be constipation. “It causes bloating because when all of the stool has built up in your colon and things aren’t moving, your small bowel and stomach, which are above your colon, will become extended with trapped air and gas,” Dr. Sam says.
One way to prevent constipation is always making sure to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, Dr. Sam adds. You should also take in 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day—that equals four to five servings of fruits and vegetables.
Exercise is another thing that can help. Working your muscles could give your colon the push it needs to keep things moving. If you're feeling bloated from constipation after dinner, get yourself out for a walk before you settle down for a Netflix binge—your belly will thank you for it.
9. Too many alcoholic or carbonated drinks
Alcohol is an inflammatory substance, which can irritate the gastrointestinal tract and cause bloating. And sugary or carbonated mixers can make it even worse, leading to discomfort, gas, and… yes: more bloating.
Try to stick to the 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which recommend up to one alcoholic drink per day for women. FYI, a drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer (at 5 percent alcohol), 8 ounces of malt liquor (at 7 percent alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (at 12 percent alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of liquor or spirits (at 80-proof or 40 percent alcohol).
Bloating isn’t always connected to food. Sometimes, it’s simply hormonal. “Most women experience mild bloating a week or two before a period, which is caused by normal cyclic hormonal changes,” Sherry Ross, M.D., OB/GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, tells Health. If your bloating at that time of the month is severe, it could be a symptom of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)—possibly along with tearfulness, irritability, food cravings and weight gain. This one calls for patience. “All the symptoms associated with PMS improve once the period comes and goes,” Dr. Ross says.
Some supplements may help relieve PMS bloating, such as vitamin E, vitamin D, thiamine, magnesium, or omega-3 fish oil, Dr. Ross adds. She also recommends eating foods that are natural diuretics, like celery, cucumbers, watermelon, tomatoes, asparagus, melon, and lettuce.
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