Bloating. We’ve probably all experienced it at some point. It can throw off your day, make you feel uncomfortable and sometimes be a great source of pain. It can range from a minor annoyance after a big meal to a consistent, reoccurring issue that makes you self-conscious of your body and food choices. Today we’re going to look at some common causes of bloating and eight things you can do to live a happy, healthy, bloat-free life.
Drink More Water
The human body is comprised of up to 60 percent water and dehydration can actually play a considerable role in bloating. If your body isn’t getting enough water your diet, it’s going to hold onto it wherever else it can (hello water retention and bloating). I strive to drink a gallon of water a day, and it has yielded some awesome results, including the way my body retains water throughout the week. Carbonated drinks can also contribute to bloating, so drop that can of soda or bubbly beverage and opt for a big glass of H2O.
Cut out or limit dairy
Many people don’t process dairy well (and I’m not just talking about confirmed cases of lactose-intolerance). ABC News published an article looking at why 60 percent of adults can’t digest milk and further research indicates a common trend of dairy tolerance or sensitivity developing in adulthood.
This can also be impacted by your genetic history. Historically, milk and fermented dairy products have played a bigger role nutritionally in some cultures than others. If your ancestors regularly consumed and tolerated lactose, your odds of tolerating it well are much higher. This image from the Food Intolerance Network breaks down the prevalence of lactose intolerance on a global scale. It’s estimated that approximately 75 percent of the world population is lactose intolerant on some level.
Does dairy does have many scientifically-backed nutritive qualities? Totally. If your body can tolerate it without any negative side effects, great! But an increasing number of people are finding that they struggle to digest it, which can be a big contributor to bloating and digestive discomfort.
Quite sadly, a few years ago I discovered my body just wasn’t jiving as well with dairy as it had in childhood. I gradually started eliminating most dairy products from my diet and it has made a huge difference in bloating and digestive issues. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bummed about developing a lower tolerance for dairy (especially in a world with things like triple cheese pizza with cheese stuffed crust). But learning that it’s a very common, and quite adaptable issue has helped me learn how to adjust my nutrition and feel so much better.
Rule Out Other Food Allergies
In addition to dairy, it’s also possible to develop allergies and sensitivities to other kinds of food as you age. Some people can consume things like fructose, eggs, wheat, and gluten just fine for years but down the road discover their body can no longer process something anymore. Food allergies can also be the cause of considerable digestive discomfort and extreme pain while the body struggles to break down an unfriendly food source.
Again, this has unfortunately been the case for me in recent years. Over the last year and a half, I noticed an increasing amount of painful bloating and digestive discomfort after meals. With time, consulting a medical professional and a lot of trial and error in eliminating different types of food from my diet, we determined that I have developed a sensitivity to certain kinds of wheat, oats, and gluten. To be honest, I put off getting to the bottom of the matter for a long time, because I was afraid of being told I couldn’t have certain foods anymore (pretty ridiculous, I know, but I was still in mourning over the triple cheese pizza). It eliminated a number of the plant-based protein I’ve relied on over the last eight years in my vegetarian and pescetarian diet. At the recommendation of a qualified medical professional, I’ve actually added animal protein (poultry) back into my diet in 2018. I’ve had to adjust my diet some, but my quality of life has improved drastically since learning about these issues. I no longer struggle with that horrible, painful bloating.
I will note that not all food sensitivities are the direct cause of a specific food allergy. Sometimes the quality of that food is the issue. For instance, most of my life I thought I had an egg allergy because after eating them I would often get throbbing, migraine-like headaches. In later years with some research, I learned that the eggs weren’t the culprit, but rather the hormones, antibiotics and food dyes being given to the hens who produced those eggs. I switched to organic eggs and immediately the headaches there gone. If you think that you may be experiencing a reaction to certain foods in adulthood, it may be time to schedule an appointment with your doctor to talk about getting tested for food allergies.
Eat Small Meals Throughout the Day
Do you always feel bloated after meal times? You may just be eating too much at once. It can feel like bloat, but actually consuming large meals can leave you feeling stuffed, overly distended and uncomfortable. Try eating smaller portion sizes and breaking your daily food intake into 4-6 small, spaced out meals. You will feel lighter and have better energy throughout the day vs feeling sluggish, lethargic and heavy while your body takes longer to break down that big meal. It will also help to better stimulate your metabolism and help keep cravings at bay.
If you’re used to regularly feeling bloated after large meals, there may be an adjustment period as your body acclimates to consuming smaller meals throughout the day, so don’t be discouraged. Also, focus on slowing down as you chew; it will help reduce the amount of air you swallow (which can cause bloating) and allow your brain to register when it’s full. Meal prepping will help you have quick, healthy meal and snack options on hand all week long so you can start munching your way to a happier, less bloated you.
Get in Enough Fiber
Got fiber? If not, you may be among that majority of US adults who don’t meet the recommended daily intake. Fiber plays a big role in gastrointestinal health by promoting regular bowel movements and the distribution of gut bacteria throughout the intestines. (Glamorous, right?) But both of those things are actually pivotal to your immune and digestive health and keeping your digestive system healthy, unbloated and cancer-free.
I’ve taken the time to compose a short poem for you on the benefits of good digestive health: “If the pipes are clean and clear, gas and constipation you will no longer fear.” (Did you like it? It only took me 10 minutes and an inappropriate amount of laughter alone in an empty house to type up just now.)
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends women take in 25 grams of fiber a day and men consume 38 grams daily. For adults over the age of 50, 21 grams a day are recommended for the ladies and 30 grams for gentlemen. Natural sources of fiber can be found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Tracking your daily food intake in a free app or website like My Fitness Pal is a great way to start tracking your fiber intake.
Cut Back on Salt
Your body needs sodium to function, but going overboard can have a number of adverse effects on your health. Your body retains water as it works to process sodium through the kidneys and one of the most noticeable side effects of overdoing it on sodium is higher levels of water retention. Water retention is a bit different than bloating, but it can leave you feeling heavier than usual like you are bloated.
So how much sodium should you be taking in? Research from the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans indicates the majority of US adults consume more than 3,400 mg a day and another study by the USDA found that the average American male consumes over 4000 mg a day. (Neither of those is good if you were wondering.) The USDA recommends for healthy adults to take in less than 2,400 milligrams a day. Higher risk individuals (African Americans, anyone over the age of 51 or people with high blood pressure, diabetes or existing heart or kidney disease) should limit that amount to 1,500 mg a day.
In addition to watching my overall sodium intake, I’ve also found switching to less processed salts (sea salts and pink Himalayan salt) has helped make a difference in my personal bloating and water retention.
Cut out processed foods
Overly processed foods (chips, cookies, candies, microwavable snacks and meals, breakfast snacks and cereals, low calorie “healthy” snack packs and even certain supplements bars and powders) tend to be higher in sodium, sugar and empty calories. They can also never substitute or provide the sustenance that whole food sources do for your body, often prompting the body to continue sending hungry signals (even when it is full) because it hasn’t received the nutrients it needs. Low-quality filler ingredients found in many processed foods can also be tougher on some people’s digestive system to process. So reach for that fresh fruit smoothie in the mornings over the donut; pack a wholesome lunch and snack with you when you go to work; opt for natural protein sources (plant or animal based) vs living off protein bars, shakes, and supplements for your main protein intake.
Give Your Body Dependable, Sustainable Nutrition
Your body requires adequate nutrition to thrive, and that includes both macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.). And no matter how clever you may be, you will never succeed in fooling your body about when it is receiving adequate nutrition. Your body cannot thrive off a diet of junk or fast food. It also cannot thrive from yo-yo-ing back on forth on fad diets, skipping meals or excessively restricting calories.
If your body isn’t receiving the proper nutrients it needs, you’re going to be prone to cravings and hunger signals (even when you are full), because it is still seeking that sustenance that it isn’t getting. This can happen when you are over-eating poor foods or even under-eating good foods (aka, yo-yo dieting or drastic calorie-counting). Both of these things can lead to metabolic damage, increased fat storage (weight gain), constipation and feeling bloated. If you’re not sure what a balanced diet looks like for your body and lifestyle, then it may be time to talk with a nutritionist or fitness trainer with a backed nutritional certification.
All writing copyright © 2018 Rachel Elise Weems Woods
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