What is bloating and is it normal?
There’s been a rise in media outlets sharing magazine articles about “beating the bloat” or sharing content to make you think you should never feel bloated — so is that true?
As a Registered Dietitian, I hear this question all the time, and bloating (abdominal distension) is part of the normal digestion process. There are of course factors that may cause an increase in bloating, cases where bloating might not be normal, but in general, let’s break down what bloating is and why it occurs.
This information is important to learn for yourself, but also the next time you’re hanging with your girlfriends and someone complains they’re “so bloated”, you can teach them the normal reason behind bloating, how digestion works, and tips for reducing bloating if it’s temporarily uncomfortable.
What Is Bloating?
Depending on the individual, bloating will most likely look or feel different for each person. In general, bloating can feel like your stomach or core area is full, tight, gassy, physically swollen, stomach distended (i.e. “food baby” is often a comment that’s said), and in general uncomfortable around the core area.
For some people looking bloated is of more concern than feeling bloated. Many female clients come to me complaining about being “bloated” when in fact it’s not bloating caused by normal or abnormal digestion at all, but rather just a change in body composition they may not be used to. It could be water retention during that time of the month with menstruation, an increase in belly fat/weight gain, or eating too many salty foods.
What Causes Bloating?
You’re not alone! Did you know according to the NHS, people pass gas 15-20 times a day? There are several causes of bloating. In the general sense or in “normal” conditions, bloating is often a temporary feeling of fullness, usually due to intestinal gas.
After you eat, no matter what foods although you can see from the list below there are foods that cause more bloat than others, your stomach starts to break down the food. That food becomes small tiny digestible pieces, small enough so the food can go through the small intestine and onward.
Carbohydrates break down and fiber ferments which produce gas, which gas expands, causing bloating. Abdominal distension just means your stomach physically looks larger, again this is normal and is temporary after you eat or as food is digested.
Typically with bloating, it’s normal to feel temporarily bloated, full, or even gassy — these pass hours later or within the day, are not painful in any way, and are relieved by having a bowel movement, passing gas, drinking warm beverages to relax the digestive system, letting time pass, or even light stretching or exercising.
But the good news is, guess what, your body is properly digesting food and absorbing nutrients to fuel you!
Things you may not know cause bloating:
- Drinking carbonated beverages, like sparkling water
- Eating too fast
- Not chewing your food thoroughly
- Not eating enough fiber
- Not drinking enough water
- Not having a bowel movement at least once a day
- Feeling very stressed
- Eating large or oversized portions
- Taking certain medications
- Adding probiotics to your routine
- Eating too late before bedtime
Is bloating normal?
Bloating can also be caused by health conditions such as IBS, food intolerances or sensitivities, celiac disease, lactose intolerance, acid reflux, PCOS, certain types of cancer, hernia, IBD, h pylori, intestinal obstruction, and more.
Click these articles to learn more about IBS and the Low FODMAP diet. In general, a FODMAP is a collection of naturally-occurring short-chain carbohydrates or sugars (only one or two sugars linked together), which the gut has trouble digesting in some people. FODMAP itself stands for Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols — all things people following the diet would aim to avoid.
A cheat sheet of questions to ask yourself if you need to go see your doctor or make an appointment with a dietitian:
- uncontrolled vomiting
- uncontrolled diarrhea
- constipation, no bowel movements for days at a time
- blood in your stool or in vomit
- dizziness, light headiness
- nausea with every meal
- painful bowel movements
- bloating with every meal you eat
Otherwise, if bloating comes and goes, is relieved by taking one or more listed actions above (or others that work for you!) then you’re most likely experiencing a normal process to digestion. You might even be asking why you get bloated after eating “healthy” foods? Well, that’s normal too! Some whole foods are more likely to cause you gas or bloating due to their starch content, sugars, or fiber.
Take a look at these common, healthy whole food choices that very commonly cause gas and bloating.
Whole foods that cause bloating:
- Eating beans, legumes
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Raw kale
- Fiber-rich chia and flax seeds
- Fiber-rich foods in general (insoluble fiber may relieve and soluble fiber may contribute to bloating due to inulin)
- Foods rich in fat
- Sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners
If you need a little temporary relief to ease bloating, here are some ideas: first grab a cup of warm-hot peppermint tea (not if you have acid reflux, opt for ginger then) which can help soothe digestion and release gas, take a short 5 or 10 minute walk, do some light core stretching, try to use the bathroom if you need to go, drink plenty of water, take 5 minutes of deep breathing to decrease stress, and make sure at your next meal you chew the food properly!
Remember that while our bodies are amazing, adaptive, and can work like clockwork, it’s still not a machine that operates with nothing weird happening.
Bloating after eating or bloating occasionally is part of normal digestion. Most of the time when I’m working with clients and educate them about normal bloating, they have an “ah-ha” moment where somewhere along the way, a story was told in their minds they should never be bloated, should always be feeling “light”, have a flat stomach, and no water retention. Our bodies will change from day to day and sometimes they do they’re own thing, bloating included, and that’s okay!
Check in with yourself and ask yourself if what you’re experiencing feels or seems out of the normal or reach out to your dietitian or physician if bloating is an everyday day challenge you face, if you find no relief, if it’s painful, or intruding your daily life.
Above all, you can experiment with your personal digestion and the activities and foods in this article to see which personally affect you. If you find what may be triggering bloating, you can limit those foods or work with a dietitian to get you on a plan and educate you.
Do you experience bloating occasionally? Have you discovered what foods or activities may trigger bloating for you? Share your story or chime in on Instagram #nutritionstripped