"I feel so bloated" is a phrase you most likely have uttered yourself or have heard many times from family and friends. I personally say it more than I'd like to admit, and my husband calls his puffed-out after-dinner belly his "food baby." Apparently, we are not alone. According to a study published in International Scholarly Research Notices: Gastroenterology, surveys reveal that 10 to 25 per cent of healthy people frequently experience bloating.
But that word means different things to different people. Tamara Duker, a New York-based dietitian who specializes in digestive disorders, says, "People with a variety of digestive complaints experience bloating as a symptom." She explains that some people feel bloated as a result of constipation, while others say they are bloated when feeling gassy. Some experience bloating as having a notably distended belly after eating; others complain of it when they are retaining fluid or have gained weight. Although the causes of bloating can be highly individual, once any larger medical issues have been ruled out, there are several strategies that can be broadly applied to help beat the bloat.
A key tactic is finding a comfortable balance with fiber. Too little can contribute to constipation, a common cause of bloating, so you want to get enough to stay regular. Plus, fiber-rich foods (vegetables, fruits and whole grains) can help you manage your weight because they tend to fill you up on fewer calories, and research shows losing weight may ease bloating, too.
But eating too much fiber, especially of certain kinds, can lead to digestive discomfort as well. As a review study published in Gastroenterology points out, fiber overload is common in bloated patients. So, if you tend to eat huge plates of kale salads and piles of Brussels sprout slaw and experience frequent bloating, you might want to back off on that a bit. If you eat few fiber-rich foods, work more into your meals gradually so you don't shock your system.
Also, some fibers are more easily digested and less likely to cause gassiness than others. Squash, carrots, spinach, berries, mango, papaya, chia seeds, oatmeal, quinoa and barley are all easily tolerated fiber-rich foods, according to Duker, whereas beans, cauliflower and other vegetables in the cabbage family tend to be more gas-producing. She suggests "prioritizing less-gassy fibers until you become regular, then introduce others gradually as tolerated." She also advises not to ingest too much inulin (also known as chicory root), a type of fiber added to packaged foods that she says can be gas-producing.
Skip sugar-free sweeteners
Sugar-free candy and diet soft drinks might also contribute to bloating, according to the Gastroenterology review, because many artificial and sugar-free sweeteners are not completely absorbed and wind up fermenting in the colon. Sorbitol and mannitol, found in gum and candy, are natural sugar-free sweeteners known to cause gastrointestinal problems in large amounts. So nix the gum, not only to avoid these sweeteners, but because chewing gum also leads to swallowing air, which increases gas in your system.
Eat more slowly
Another thing you can do to minimize ingesting air as you eat is to S-L-O-W D-O-W-N. Duker points to our "modern, hurried eating and drinking habits" as contributing to bloating. Gulping down food, guzzling drinks and blabbing away while eating all cause us to swallow air. Chewing more thoroughly and not talking until we're done chewing will prevent that, as well as help us tune into our satiety cues so we are less likely to overeat. Plus, when we masticate more, food is broken down better before it gets to our stomachs, so it is more easily digested.
Eat smaller meals
For many people, the feeling of being bloated comes from the physical discomfort of having a full stomach after eating a large volume of food. (Case in point: my husband's food baby.) As I mentioned, slowing down can help keep portions in check, and chewing well means your stomach won't have to work as hard to empty efficiently. But it also might be worthwhile to change your eating pattern: Duker said many of her patients do better when they eat small meals more frequently throughout the day rather than the traditional three squares.
As most women know, sometimes bloating is not digestive per se, but directly linked to hormonal shifts during the menstrual cycle that cause water retention and a feeling of overall puffiness. This temporary bloating can be minimized by eating plenty of potassium-rich foods (fruits and vegetables, ideally the more easily digested ones) and watching salt intake.
There is evidence that physical activity such as walking or jogging may alleviate bloating by helping clear gas. Also, because bloaters with overly distended bellies often have weak abdominal muscles, keeping your midsection strong by doing sit-ups and other core-strengthening exercises could make a difference.
• Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author. She blogs and offers a biweekly newsletter at elliekrieger.com. She also writes weekly Nourish recipes in The Washington Post's Food section.