They’re the foods that leave you struggling to fit into clothes that appeared easy enough to put on just this morning!
What is it about certain meals that seems to change our waist measurement almost instantaneously?
There’s a multitude of reasons why your belly may feel inflated and uncomfortable after eating, but one thing’s for sure – you want to get to the bottom of it and avoid any further discomfort.
Check out these top five offenders for belly bloat.
First, a Caveat...
Before I list those causes, let me offer an important caveat….
Not everyone will react the same to different foods. While we can talk about prevalent patterns, your sensitivities may or may not be reflected on this list. You may have to do a bit of investigating on your own to figure out why your belly rebels with certain meals.
It’s extremely helpful to keep a food-symptom diary where you keep track of what you’ve eaten and how you feel within 30 minutes, 60 minutes, and a couple hours after each meal or snack.
Also keep in mind that the bloating symptoms triggered by some of these food items may indicate imbalances within your GI tract rather than direct, disturbing attributes of the food itself.
If you find yourself experiencing bloating or other digestive discomfort, I always recommend talking with a registered dietitian, who can help you pinpoint your individual sensitivities with more specific questions and accurate testing. The difference this can make for your weight loss journey can’t be underestimated!
And now let’s look at the most common belly bloat culprits....
Most dairy products (milk, ice cream, yogurt and kefir more so than cheese) naturally contain a specific sugar called lactose, which requires a unique enzyme (lactase) to be digested. An 8-ounce glass of milk contains 12 grams of this lactose, and a typical 6-ounce container of plain Greek yogurt has around 5 grams, for example.
For many people with Northern European ancestry, this is not enough to cause gastrointestinal distress. However, for the majority of people of Asian or African descent, any amount may be too much.
If you lack the lactase enzyme or consume larger-than-you-can-tolerate portions, then any amount of lactose consumed can remain in the small intestine undigested (possibly fermented by bacteria or yeasts).
Large amounts of incompletely digested sugars in the intestines (sugars of any type, but especially lactose) can cause water to be drawn into the intestines. The water drawn in to dilute the sugar load speeds GI transit time and is one of the main reasons for, um, urgency.
Technically it’s called osmotic diarrhea, but whatever you call it, the bloating and rushed trips to the bathroom are worth any efforts to avoid them.
What to Do:
- Try eliminating all forms of dairy for a few weeks as you keep track of your food symptom trends.
- Take supplemental lactase enzymes anytime you suspect your food has dairy in it (available over the counter).
Polyols, or sugar alcohols, are approved food ingredients manufacturers have been incorporating into food and beverages in response to mounting scrutiny of more artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose.
They are sugar-like compounds that have relatively sweet flavor profiles, but unlike sugar they have an -OH alcohol group in their chemical structure that renders them indigestible by our GI tract.
Recently, the energy drink and portable snack bar companies have turned to sugar alcohols to offer “more natural” product alternatives. One trouble with this is sugar alcohols are slightly less sweet than real sugar and way less sweet than artificial sweeteners. As a result, products require rather large quantities to yield the sweet taste consumers prefer.
As with many of these bloating culprits, the dose determines the carnage.
Xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, glycerol, and erythritol have been used for years as non-caloric sweeteners for chewing gum, sugar-free candy, and diet products of all sorts. Of these, erythritol is the best tolerated by our digestive system, but it’s often derived from genetically modified corn.
Some popular sugar-free or low-sugar protein bars and beverages may contain well over 20 grams of sugar alcohols in a package.
For a few people I know, this is far too much to feel comfortable because - similar to what happens with lactose intolerance - the body tries to dilute the indigestible sugar alcohol by drawing water into the intestines. This extra pressure feels like bloating and gurgling and often comes with the same urgency to avoid disaster pants.
What to Do:
- Check the nutrition facts of that low-sugar or sugar-free product. Sugar alcohols are reported in the carbohydrate section.
- Limit the amount you consume to well below 10 grams at a time.
- Avoid them altogether if need be and opt for natural sugar alternatives like stevia.
Sure, we all know simple sugars can be enemy number one for fat loss, but their trouble may not be limited to long-term body composition.
I’ve worked with a number of people who experience rather immediate bloating from meals or beverages containing relatively large amounts of easily digested carbohydrates, namely items containing added sugars or refined grains.
Often for these folks, visible stomach distention can be observed (and felt) within 30 minutes of eating, mostly because these sugars can be easily fermented by various types of bacteria or yeasts in the small intestine.
Normally, there are very few of these organisms present in the small intestine because stomach acid is supposed to neutralize them, but if stomach acidity has been altered by overuse of antibiotics, antacids, GERD treatments, or other commonly prescribed medications, there’s a chance that small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) may be the cause of your bloating.
What to Do:
- Eat smaller meals. Sometimes the dose determines the discomfort….
- Reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates and added sugars – any ingredients that end in “-ose,” “syrup,” “juice” or “nectar.”
- Rule out SIBO or possible yeast overgrowth with various tests like hydrogen breath test, stool samples or antibody testing.
Another common bloating culprit is carbonated beverages.
Regular or diet soda, sparkling water or even bubbly alcoholic beverages (especially beer) may cause you to ingest a significant amount of gas (carbon dioxide).
There are only two ways for that gas to escape the confines of the GI tract, and it often just gets burped up when over-consumed or downed too quickly.
What to Do:
- Drink less of these beverages (especially when you’re trying to fit into those holiday dress clothes) or drink them more slowly. Sipping is better than gulping – especially if you're consuming it along with a meal.
- Opt for plain water with a wedge of citrus fruit instead.
Legumes (a.k.a. Pulses)
Beans, beans, the magical fruit…
Everyone seems to learn at an early age that beans and legumes can turn our guts into an internal orchestra, but why?
Pulses are generally considered to be very nutritious because of their slow-to-digest, energy-sustaining starch content and decently high amounts of several amino acids (protein building blocks).
Unfortunately, it’s the high amount of fiber that makes these little legumes into gas-creating bloat bombs for many.
While our own digestive enzymes have the ability to break down many forms of carbohydrates, some of the shorter chain carbohydrates found in legumes can only be used by beneficial bacterial strains living in our large intestines. These bacteria can process short-chain carbohydrates into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) - and gas.
SCFAs specifically have an important role in regulating hunger hormones, enhancing immune system function, and controlling inflammatory responses in the gut, so generally speaking they are a beneficial byproduct!
However, if you drastically increase your intake of legumes in a short period of time, your body won’t be ready to handle the increased production of gas other than to feel (and sound) bloated.
What to Do:
- Include legumes in your diet for several different health benefits.
- Increase your intake slowly to allow time for your gut bacterial environment to adapt.
- Go for a walk after lunch or dinner.
Any Other Foods High in FODMAPS
FODMAP sensitivity is more common in people who have other irritable bowel symptoms. If you have frequent bloating, you may consider more detailed investigation of the FODMAPs that may be plentiful in your current diet.
FODMAP is an acronym which stands for “Fermentable Oligo-Di-Monosaccharides and Polyols” and is used to describe some specific types of short-chain carbohydrates we commonly consume.
Not all carbohydrates are considered FODMAPS, however, and many FODMAPS only increase the chance of bloating when consumed in excess. Your “excess” threshold may be surprisingly low though.
Legumes, lactose, sugar alcohols, wheat and other grains, fructose (fruit sugar but also found in many vegetables), and fermented beverages are all considered high FODMAP food groups.
Wondering what else to eat then? Connect with a nutrition coach to help personalize your journey towards bloat-free living. Thanks for reading.
In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.