You’ll often hear people complain that they feel bloated, or you might even have made that complaint yourself.
Despite the common use of the term, the definition is not entirely clear and the average layman is not familiar with the precise medical meaning, nor do they have one of the underlying conditions causing bloating.
Instead, to most of us, bloating is the feeling you get of being ‘too full’ and the waistband of your clothes feeling tight.
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What causes Bloating?
The most frequent causes of this kind of symptom are water retention and gas. For some people, there may be excessive amounts of gas in the intestine. Other people are merely more sensitive to normal levels of gas.
Although there are medical conditions which make people more susceptible to water retention or sensitivity to gas, this article is about food-related causes and how a change in diet can reduce bloating.
Reduce your salt intake
Although water retention is frequently caused by underlying medical issues, it can also be the result of a high salt intake.
Salt makes your body hold on to water and is important for maintaining fluid levels in the body, but only a small amount of salt is needed – ¼ teaspoon per day.
Too much salt can lead to extra water retention. Due to the presence of salt in packaged, processed, fast food and snack food, most people probably consume more salt than they should without realising it, even if they don’t add salt to food at the table.
Processed and fast foods typically have a higher salt content than similar foods prepared and cooked at home.
Canned, smoked, salted or cured fish and meat, such as smoked salmon or lunch meats (cold cuts) are high in salt and, despite manufacturers trying to reduce the sodium content, popular foods such as breakfast cereals, fish fingers, frozen pizza, dips and spreads and snack foods usually have a salt content rating of at least ‘medium’. Some are quite high.
For example, a half a can of Heinz spaghetti bolognese contains 25% of the recommended daily intake of salt. As excess fluid also raises blood pressure which puts strain on the heart, there’s an additional health benefit to looking at food labels and cutting back on foods which have medium or high levels of salt content.
Limit ‘Simple Carbohydrates’
Certain carbohydrates can also contribute to water retention. All carbohydrates are converted to glucose during digestion. Some of this glucose is used by your body immediately for energy.
The surplus glucose is stored in your liver and muscle cells as glycogen to fuel your body when energy is needed.
Glycogen is bound with water molecules, with 3-4 grams of water per 1 gram of glycogen, meaning that there is always some water retained in your body tissues.
The more glycogen stored, the more water retained. An adequate amount of stored glycogen is around 450 grams, bound to 1.36-1.81 kilograms of water.
‘Simple carbohydrates’, however, are broken down very quickly in the body, flooding it with sudden large quantities of excess glucose to store as glycogen with correspondingly large volumes of water.
Examples of this kind of carbohydrate are white bread, candy and sugary drinks. There is a limit to how much glycogen can be stored, but the maximum is generally 15 grams of glycogen per kilogram of body weight.
Someone who weighs 75 kilograms could store up to 1125 grams of glycogen in their bodies and the associated water content could be up to 4.5 litres!
Prefer ‘Complex carbohydrates’
‘Complex carbohydrates’, with a higher fibre content, such as fruit, vegetables and whole grain bread or pasta, are absorbed more slowly, with glucose being released in smaller increments over a longer time.
This means more of the glucose will be used immediately for energy and less will need to be stored. Replacing simple carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates in your regular diet will reduce water retention.
Choose Low Glycaemic Index foods
Use the glycaemic index (GI) to see which foods contain carbohydrates that are absorbed more slowly.
High GI carbohydrates, such as:
- Fruit juice
- Mashed potato
- or White bread
Get into the bloodstream rapidly.
Low GI carbohydrates, such as:
- Barley or
- Sweet potatoes
Are absorbed more slowly, which is what makes a low GI diet so beneficial for those with diabetes who need to stabilise their blood sugar levels.
Aim for carbohydrates with a glycaemic index of 55 or less and try to avoid or limit carbohydrates with a glycaemic index of 70 or more.
Generally speaking, the more processed a food is, the more likely it is to have a high glycaemic index but you can reduce the overall glycaemic index of a meal by mixing higher GI carbohydrates with lower GI carbohydrates, adding protein or fat, or cooking carbohydrates like pasta for a shorter time.
For example, you can spread peanut butter on your bread, or serve rice with a meat sauce or lots of vegetables.
Cut carbonated drinks
Carbonated (fizzy) drinks with sugar in them are not only quickly absorbed carbohydrates, they also contain gas.
Some of this gas will be released by burping, but any gas that reaches your intestine will stay there until you pass it, filling your gut up and leaving you bloated. Switch to still drinks for regular use to reduce daily bloating.
Don’t eat too much fat
Fat can also make you feel bloated because it takes longer to be broken down during digestion. You might not notice it with small quantities, but a meal that’s high in fats could leave you feeling ‘fuller’ than usual.
Fat’s slower digestion also means it has more time to ferment, creating additional gas. You might want to go easy on burgers and chips (French fries) and don’t eat too many nuts at once.
What is FODMAPs and how it’s related to bloating?
In some people, another group of carbohydrates, called fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) can cause digestive symptoms such as bloating.
FODMAPs fall into groups:
- Fructans: These carbohydrates are found in grain products like wheat, barley, rye and spelt as well as cabbage, broccoli, artichoke, onion and garlic, among others.
- Fructose: This kind of sugar is found naturally in fruit (especially dried fruit), honey and agave, as well as in a number of processed foods which contain high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is also one of the two components of table sugar.
- Lactose: Another kind of sugar, found in dairy products like milk, soft cheeses, yoghurt and ice cream.
- Galactans: Mostly found in legumes such as baked beans, kidney beans, chick peas and soy products.
- Polyols: These are forms of sugar alcohols, often used as sugar-alternatives in products, and including xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol and mannitol.
Many of these foods, such as beans and cabbage, are well known to be gas-producing, and many people have digestive problems which are attributed to lactose intolerance. The cause of both is the way in which these carbohydrates are broken down by the body.
FODMAP foods aren’t digested until they reach the end of the intestine which is rich in gut bacteria. Unlike the bacteria in the rest of the gut, these bacteria create hydrogen gas when they react with the food, causing bloating and/or stomach pain in those who are sensitive to the gas. They also attract liquid, which can sometimes cause diarrhoea in susceptible people.
If you are one of the people who is sensitive to gas and frequently feel uncomfortably bloated, you might want to try a low-FODMAP diet, which research has shown can reduce gas and bloating.
However a low-FODMAP diet is quite complex and can be very restrictive. Many FODMAP foods also have significant health benefits so, unless you have an underlying bowel condition, like IBS, you should probably start by eliminating only one food, or group of foods, at a time and see if your symptoms improve, rather than cutting out all FODMAPs immediately.
Don’t eat too much fibres
You might also want to be careful not to consume too much dietary fibre. Fibre is essential for bowel regularity, and too little fibre leads to constipation which also causes bloating.
Too much fibre consumption, though, can also cause increased gas production as soluble fibre is fermented in the gut. If you keep to no more than 70g of fibre a day, you are unlikely to experience any problems but more than this could lead to bloating caused by excessive gas in the bowel.
Are you eating too fast?
Some food-related bloating isn’t caused by the specific foods, but by eating behaviours. Eating too fast results in more air being swallowed during eating and this will make you feel bloated when it reaches the intestine.
Eating too much can also make you feel bloated as your stomach stretches to accommodate the food. It takes some time for the brain to receive the message from the stomach that it is full, so it’s easy to eat too much and then feel bloated.
Even if you aren’t changing your diet, changes to eating behaviours by slowing down and stopping sooner can be helpful in reducing bloating too.
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