I think we can all agree that bloating is a pain, literally. It’s uncomfortable, it’s embarrassing, and sometimes, it lasts for hours or even days.
There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through your day and realizing you’ve got to unbutton your pants to sit comfortably. A 2013 survey revealed 72% of Americans say they’re living with GI discomfort, including bloating and gas.
So what the heck is going on here? Well, there are dozens of reasons for bloating — hormonal changes (like during pregnancy and menstruation), digestive disorders, antibiotic side effects.
But not everybody is on antibiotics or has a digestive disorder — so is daily bloating just an unavoidable and uncomfortable part of life?
According to the CDC, the average restaurant meal is 4x bigger today than it was in the 1950s. Americans are eating too much food every day. Nutrient-deficient food, at that.
Eat smaller meals throughout the day.
Cook at home more often. Folks eat typically 20-40% more calories at restaurants than they do at home.
Move your body — going for a walk after meals is a great way to get your digestive system working.
When we eat really fast, we swallow more air which leads to gas and bloating.
Eating on the go in particular makes us more likely to wolf down that sandwich and swallow air. And it can sometimes take up to 20 minutes for your body to register that it’s full. But if you’re shoveling your meal in your face in the car (hey, we’ve all been there), you won’t know until it’s too late and your belly starts to swell and hurt.
Slow down and sit down.
Try to be more mindful about your meals. Chew more. Have sit-down meals if you can and take the time to enjoy your food — I promise, it’ll taste better and you’ll feel better. Stop when you feel 80% full and chances are 20 minutes later, you will be satiated.
Also, don’t chew gun or drink with straws — and skip carbonated drinks. All of these can trap air on our guts and lead to gas.
Stress can lead to overeating. And as we just learned, overeating is a major cause of bloating.
Some studies show there may be a correlation between cortisol levels (i.e. the stress hormone) and gut health.
Again, get moving! You don't need to go get a gym membership and a personal trainer to do this. Moving your body — whether it’s on a walk, some light yoga, some stretching — can be a huge de-stressor (and de-bloater).
Take some time for yourself. Turn your phone off once in a while. Find your calm.
Changing your diet can help with stress, too. Research shows what we eat has a major impact on our mental health.
Risk of depression is 25-30% lower in populations eating a “traditional diet,” like a Japanese or Mediterranean Diet. Researchers say it’s because these populations have more whole vegetables and fruits in their die and less meat, dairy, and processed food.
While we’re talking about diet, rich, greasy, and fatty foods — like the ones often making up a Standard American Diet — contribute to bloating.
Why? When we overeat foods that are high in fat, it can take longer to breakdown than protein and carbohydrates.
Greasy foods can also be problematic for folks with digestive diseases, like colitis, IBS, and Crohn’s.
Plus, foods high in fat, sugar, and salt trick our brains into overeating.
Yep, really sweet and fatty foods trigger the same response in our brains as cocaine and gambling do. And just like anything addictive, the more you eat it, the more you “need” to get your high. So the Standard American Diet can often cause folks to overeat in order to get the “pleasure” they’re seeking from comfort foods.
Processed foods, another component of the S.A.D. diet, are also packed with sodium. Not only can too much sodium lead to hypertension, it makes your body hold onto water (to prevent dehydration) and contributes to bloating.
Switch to a whole food plant-based diet. It’s naturally lower in calories, fat, and salt. It also does not contain refined sugars. Even more, a plant-based diet has been shown to help with inflammation in the stomach and better digestive health.
When you first switch to a whole food plant-based diet, you may find you’re still feeling bloating — perhaps even more bloating than you noticed before.
Your plant-based bloating is mostly because you’re ingesting a lot more fiber than you were on the Standard American Diet and your body isn’t used to it. Raw cruciferous veggies, some fruits (like apples, peaches, pears and prunes), beans and lentils, and whole grains are all high-fiber foods that may result in bloating, at first.
But there’s good news. When you eat these foods frequently, your body adjusts and is able to tolerate these foods (which is good because you need fiber for optimal health.
A high fiber diet is associated with lower risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer. Fiber is exclusively a plant-based nutrient so you can only get fiber naturally from plant-based foods.
Our suggestion when you’re first transitioning to a whole food plant-based diet: ease into high fiber foods. Steam your veggies first, then add more and more raw or high-fiber foods as you go until you’re able to tolerate it better.
Note: If you have severe bloating and you’re concerned, always talk with your doctor. Bloating, while often caused by the reasons above, can sometimes be a symptom of more serious health conditions like food allergies, digestive diseases, liver disease, kidney disease, heart failure, and ovarian cancer.
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from Cornell.
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