Common Culprits of Bloat + What To Do About Them
Bloating is a very common complaint among clients who come to see me at my holistic nutrition practice. Bloating sucks - it's uncomfortable, makes your clothes feel tight, and is sometimes accompanied by gas, pain, and funky bowel movements. In some cases, bloating can be a harbinger of more serious gut health issues. But sometimes the cause is actually pretty benign and simple to fix. In today’s post, I’ve outlined some of the most common culprits causing bloating and what you can start doing about it today.
What you’re eating
Top 7 Bloat Foods:
Gluten - Hands down, gluten is the biggest dietary culprit of bloat, especially gluten-filled breads and pastas.
Dairy - Approximately 65 percent of adults are lactose intolerant. This leads to gas, bloating, generalized abdominal pain, and often diarrhea or loose stools. Even if you’re not lactose intolerant, you could have a dairy sensitivity which is very common with leaky gut.
Sugar - Sugar feeds the bad bacteria in the gut, which can overpower the beneficial bacteria in your system. Ideally, your gut has a ratio of about 85 percent good to 15 percent bad bacteria. When this ratio starts to flip, symptoms like bloating and gas arise. Many of my clients find that they are able to eliminate bloating when they remove refined sugar from their diet.
Chewing gum - The artificial sweeteners and/or sugar alcohols in gum can cause a bunch of bloating. If you chew more than a few pieces a day, cut back to one piece (or less) and watch your tummy deflate!
Carrageenan – Carrageenan is a food stabilizer often found in foods like ice cream, non-dairy yogurt, almond milk, etc. It is used to create that thick dairy texture, but it can cause gut inflammation, intestinal permeability and bloat. Read labels and choose brands without carrageenan.
Cruciferous vegetables - All the bloat culprits I’ve listed up until now are not foods that you need in your diet. They’re not doing you any favors on the health front, but cruciferous veggies like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels, cabbage, etc. are super good for you. However, they contain a starch called raffinose that can be tough to digest, leading to methane gas production in your colon. This is more bothersome for some people, while others have no issues. I don’t recommend avoiding cruciferous vegetables unless you’ve been advised by a practitioner to follow a low FODMAP diet or you know your gut can’t handle them. If you’re not used to eating many of these types of veggies, start with a small amount per serving and build up over time.
Kombucha - Kombucha is a fermented tea that contains probiotics, but it often comes along with high amounts of sugar depending on the brand. While I do believe eating fermented foods are essential to a healthy gut microbiome, moderation is key. Most people are drinking WAY too much kombucha. I consider a serving to be 4 ounces. Most kombucha is sold in 16-ounce bottles and people drink the whole bottle in one go. When I eliminate kombucha or limit my client’s kombucha intake to just 4 ounces (or a fourth of the bottle) per serving, bloating disappears!
So, obviously what you’re eating can cause bloat. But just as important as what you’re eating is how and when you’re eating…
How you’re eating
Sometimes it’s not what you’re eating that’s causing bloat, it’s how! Many of us eat on the go - walking to a meeting, driving to work, while typing emails or scrolling Instagram. Being go-go-go all the time means that you’re in your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. That’s a problem because our digestive function only works optimally when we're in “rest and digest” mode, which in the parasympathetic state of our nervous system. Eating on the go or when you’re multi-tasking means proper digestive function doesn't happen. Our brain doesn’t communicate with the gut, so digestive juices don’t get produced in the right amounts. As a result, your food ends up sitting around in the gut and not getting broken down properly, leading to gas and bloating.
What’s the solution?
Mindful eating. Eating mindfully means taking the time to sit down at a table, put away distractions, and take a few deep breaths before you begin your meal. Once you start eating, make an effort to really chew your food thoroughly until it’s liquefied before swallowing, and put your fork down between bites. Not only is mindful eating amazing for optimal digestion, but it really helps you enjoy the experience of eating a delicious and healthy meal and contributes to better satiety.
When you’re eating
Something I often say to my clients is: “your gut has a bedtime.” Its muscular contractions are tied to the light-dark cycle, aka your circadian rhythm, so your digestive function is most active during the day, when the sun is up, and least active at night, after it sets. Unfortunately nighttime is when most people are consuming the majority of their calories.To make matters worse, after filling your sleepy stomach with food at night, you may be reclining on your sofa or bed, so you don’t have the benefit of gravity and movement to help facilitate the transit of food through the GI tract. Eating large meals at night is a pretty sure fire way to feel bloated.
Eat your larger meals earlier in the day when your gut is most active and your smallest meal at night. I recommend making lunch the biggest, most substantial meal, and eating a light dinner such as a bowl of soup. Additionally, you could impose a dinner curfew - stop eating 2-3 hours before your bedtime. This is also conducive to those practicing intermittent fasting and allowing the gut to rest overnight.
Low stomach acid
Many people produce too little stomach acid (aka hypochlorhydria) which can wreak havoc on the rest of your digestion. In order for the stomach to do its job, it needs to be highly acidic. If it's not, it can slow down the other digestive functions, i.e. the pancreas won't be triggered to release enzymes to continue to break down the food, and the gallbladder won't secrete bile to emulsify dietary fats. This can create a situation in which partially digested food is stuck in your gut for far too long. Cue the bloat.
What can you do?
If you think this may be an issue for you, you can support your stomach acid production by taking a shot of diluted raw apple cider vinegar (one tablespoon mixed into 2-3 ounces of water) 15 minutes before a meal, especially if the meal contains animal protein. For more severe cases of hypochlorhydria, I recommend chatting with a holistic health practitioner about supplementing with Betaine HCL with Pepsin. It is important to find the correct dose and stay consistent while your body relearns the process of making the right amount of stomach acid on its own.
Leaky gut and Food triggers/sensitivities
When the gut is “leaky” or hyperpermeable, undigested food particles make their way out of the digestive tract and into your bloodstream. This causes a response from your immune system because suddenly there are foreign invaders in your bloodstream. The immune system produces antibodies toward these invaders which, in turn, can result in food sensitivities. Now, every time you eat that food, the body will launch the attack, and you’ll get symptoms. Bloating is a common symptom of leaky gut and food sensitivities. Until you work on healing the leaky gut, this will keep happening and you will keep having issues like bloating after meals.
What to do?
Work with a practitioner to help you implement a Leaky Gut Repair Protocol.
When our "gut army" is out of balance with a larger number of bad bacteria crowding out the good guys, this is known as dysbiosis. This can be due to SIBO, candida overgrowth, etc.
These issues require a pretty specific treatment protocol so I just recommend working with a healthcare provider if you suspect a bacterial imbalance.
As you can see, curing bIoat can be as simple as stopping a gum- chewing habit, or it can be a red flag that something more serious needs your attention. If you’ve tried removing the common bloat trigger foods, practicing mindful eating and honoring meal timing recommendation, you may like to consider working with a nutritionist or other holistic health practitioner to uncover the root cause of your bloat and support you with implementing a targeted treatment plan! If one-on-one nutritional counseling is not of interest to you, you might enjoy the Body Awareness Project‘s online program dedicated to gut repair. The course includes expert interviews addressing the major concerns for those dealing with gut dysfunction and unpleasant symptoms. My interview focuses on how to get rid of bloating, including my gut restoration protocol, but there is also tons of awesome content from the other 11 guests so go check it out!