Bloating in brief
Bloating is a tight, gassy, or full feeling in our abdomen. It's sometimes paired with distension, which is the physical expansion of our abdominal area. It's important to note that it's natural for our abdomen to expand more or less over a day to a certain extent. It can indicate our stomach is filled with nourishing food and beneficial gut bacteria are being fueled! If we're experiencing more gas, swelling, or discomfort than usual though, food or lifestyle adjustments might do the trick.
Signs to beware of
It's best to work with a healthcare team for individualized support, but it's especially important to alert a professional if any of the following red flags are experienced.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Unintentional weight loss.
- Presence of blood in stool.
- Prolonged changes in bowel movements.
- Disordered body image or a negative relationship with food.
Gut and gas basics
When we eat food, it passes to our stomach where it is broken down into smaller pieces. From there the food moves on to our small intestine, where key nutrients are absorbed for our body to use. From there, the undigested food moves on to the large intestine (also known as the 'colon'), where an ecosystem of trillions of microorganisms live, such as bacteria, that play a role in bloating and digestion.
This undigested food can feed the microorganisms, supporting their growth, and in turn, the bacteria produce gas. Foods that feed the microorganisms are called prebiotics such as whole grains, beans, bananas, and cruciferous vegetables. While prebiotics feed the microorganisms in our gut, probiotics provide the live microorganisms themselves. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods such as kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and sourdough bread.
Possible causes of bloating
Bloating is one of the most common symptoms related to the digestive system with many potential culprits. Determining the root is especially important for managing symptoms. A few common causes of bloating and distention include the following.
|Excess Gas: two common offenders are, 1) the gas we consume, mostly from swallowed air, and 2) the gas produced by microorganisms that call our gut home.|
|No. 02||Difficult to digest foods: foods that are harder to break down or don't absorb well can promote discomfort, especially if we increase our consumption of them quickly. Think, for example, of beans and lentils. Other sources that may cause discomfort include caffeine, spicy foods, fattier foods, sugar alcohols, and artificial sweeteners.|
|No. 03||Constipation: being backed up can build on abdominal pressure, may promote increased gas as bacteria have more time to ferment foods, and can block our ability to clear gas effectively.|
|No. 04||Stress and hormones: stress can influence our digestive system functioning which may promote discomfort through a connection called the gut-brain axis. For example, in response to stress, our body may divert energy away from digestion to prioritize other body functions. Hormone fluctuations, such as changes around menstruation, are also associated with bloating.|
|No. 05||Fluid build-up: Excess water in the body may worsen symptoms of bloating. For example, slowly absorbing carbohydrates can increase the amount of water in the small intestine and promote discomfort. A diet high in salt can also cause water retention.|
|No. 06||Health conditions: such as irritable bowel syndrome, a delayed breakdown of food, food intolerances, or bacterial overgrowth are associated with bloating. Medications also often have side effects which sometimes include undesirable digestive symptoms.|
Beating the bloat from plant foods
Now that we know the basics, there are some strategies we can consider to reduce excess bloating and distension when enjoying plant-based foods.
Gradually introduce fibre
Fibre fuels our gut bacteria and helps to increase stool frequency which can provide bloating relief, especially in constipation, but adding it too fast may worsen symptoms. Signs we may be introducing fibre too quickly include abdominal distension, excess gas, or bloating.
Fibre is abundant in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts. Consider starting with just one addition at a time and increasing intake slowly over time. Some ideas to build up our fibre intake include:
- Add ground flaxseeds to oatmeal, parfaits, or baked goods.
- Bring trail mix, veggies with hummus, or fruit for a quick snack on the go.
- Top pancakes, waffles, overnight oats, or smoothies with a handful of berries.
- Enjoy whole grains more often, such as brown rice, oatmeal, millet, or buckwheat.
In a feat to stay hydrated and promote digestive health, fluids play a key role. Water is especially helpful when enjoying fibre-rich foods to avoid dehydration and discomfort. In one study, 1.5 - 2.0 litres of fluid daily with fibre-rich foods was found to promote bowel movements in individuals with chronic constipation. Some signs that we're not getting enough fluids include feeling thirsty, feeling dry skin or lips, and having darker-coloured urine.
Ease into gas-promoting foods
Gas-promoting foods, such as legumes and cruciferous vegetables, provide essential nutrients, but can also promote gassiness, and are thus advised to be introduced gradually. For the general population, the nutritional benefits of gas-promoting foods typically far surpass the experienced gas. We don't necessarily need to restrict these foods, but rather, can consider some strategies if there's discomfort with a specific food first. Let's explore some common culprits.
Legumes, including beans and lentils, contain oligosaccharides which act as a prebiotic and can produce excess gas in our gut. There are some strategies to promote comfort.
- Start slow: increasing our intake of legumes over time helps promote gut health and gives the body time to adapt to gas which can improve tolerance. For example, instead of piling up on legumes overnight, we can start by incorporating the equivalent of about ¼ cup every two days.
- Try gentler legumes first: if larger beans such as chickpeas and black beans cause too much discomfort, other legumes that typically have a lower oligosaccharide content, such as lentils, may help to ease our body into digesting legumes.
- Up the fluid intake: similar to fibre, it's important to stay hydrated when embracing legumes.
- Rinse canned legumes: Rinsing canned legumes with water helps to remove oligosaccharides (and salt!) leached into the water or on the surface.
- Soak dried legumes: Soaking dried legumes provides many benefits, one of which is reducing oligosaccharides. To learn more about soaking, see our PUL article.
Cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and red or green cabbage also contain oligosaccharides. Similar to legumes and other fibre-rich foods, we can aim to enjoy cruciferous vegetables in smaller portions first and gradually increase our intake of them over time as tolerated.
We can also consider cooking cruciferous vegetables as this may make them easier to digest. For example, steaming, roasting, boiling, or baking.
There are other suspects aside from oligosaccharides that can promote discomfort, especially in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome. These are often referred to as "FODMAPs" which stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. For example, onions and garlic are higher in FODMAPs and may promote discomfort in some.
A low FODMAP approach is a tool that can be used to identify specific foods that are poorly tolerated in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome. It begins with a short-term period of restricting foods high in FODMAPs with a gradual reintroduction of these foods to pinpoint which are better tolerated.
Eight other tips to promote comfort
Bloating and distension may also be related to factors aside from the plant foods we eat. Here we outline eight other tips to consider.
No. 01 - Steer clear of swallowing extra air
Swallowing air can build up and promote bloating or discomfort. It's natural to swallow a varying amount of air throughout the day, possibly between 1 to several litres, although there are some strategies to avoid excess amounts.
- Eat slowly and chew well: we tend to swallow more air when eating quickly. This also gives us a chance to enjoy food more mindfully!
- Limit the use of straws: using straws can lead to swallowing more air.
- Limit sucking on hard candies and chewing gum: these are common culprits of extra air. They also often contain sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners which can worsen symptoms in some.
- Reduce carbonated beverages: such as bubbly water and soda can promote discomfort in those struggling with pain from bloating. They have air pockets that can make us feel extra gas-filled and sometimes also contain artificial sweeteners.
No. 02 - Be mindful of salt
When we consume salt, water likes to follow. This can make us feel more bloated than usual. Some considerations to avoid excess salt include:
- Limit processed foods: the major source of salt comes from packaged foods such as chips, pretzels, prepared meals, and processed meats or meat alternatives.
- Flavour with herbs and spices: using a variety of spices and herbs can help add delicious flavours and aromas to food without the need to add excess salt.
- Consider unsalted or low sodium varieties: this can help to better control our salt intake. For example, canned products may have low sodium options.
No. 03 - Consider spacing food out throughout the day
Large and heavy meals can promote discomfort in some individuals. Spreading out food to smaller meals or snacks may provide some relief. For a blank template to help with planning, see our PUL weekly meal planner.
No. 04 - Try soothing foods
There are some foods believed to have relieving effects on our digestive system. Four notable sources include ginger, fennel, mint, and kiwi.
- Ginger: may promote movement in our digestive tract that can relieve pain and build-up of gas. Ginger blends nicely into smoothies, grated into tea, or pairs nicely in dishes such as curry or stir-fry.
- Fennel: most notably dried seeds are rich in anethole and may relax our digestive tract which can help release gas while reducing inflammation. Fennel makes for a delicious addition to beverages, salad, pasta, or soup.
- Mint: peppermint, in particular concentrated peppermint oil, has shown promising results in soothing and calming the digestive muscles to promote comfort in irritable bowel syndrome. Peppermint tea may be one option to promote digestive comfort. Note that peppermint may worsen heartburn and is often not recommended for those with reflux, such as in GERD.
- Kiwi: contains an enzyme called actinidin that helps to break down food, may positively impact the gut ecosystem, and promote bowel movements to relieve abdominal pain and distention.
No. 05 - Enjoy movement
Enjoying physical movement can work wonders, including helping to relieve abdominal bloating. It doesn't need to be too intense - even a 10 to 15-minute slow walk after meals has helped some. Working with a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist, may also improve bloating by focusing on our pelvic region.
No. 06 - Let it out
When we feel the urge to burp or pass gas, letting it out can provide instant relief. It may be easier said than done, especially if we're in public, but passing gas is a completely natural part of digestion! Holding it in may contribute to gas building up and can make us feel more uncomfortable.
No. 07 - Consider rolling back on restrictions
Our intentions are usually genuine, but sometimes overly restricting can do more harm than good for our physical and mental health. Restricting our food intake may also impact our nutritional adequacy and overall gut health. For example, some people may avoid gluten despite no confirmed sensitivity or allergy and as such unintentionally do not get enough fibre.
No. 08 - Reach out for support
It's best to reach out to a medical professional for personalized support if discomfort continues or if any red flags occur. This can help to rule out other underlying issues. We can also visit a dietitian to discuss our current dietary patterns, explore foods that may be promoting discomfort, and limit overly restrictive dietary patterns.
Gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort can be caused by many different things. While these issues may resolve by tweaking lifestyle habits, it's also important to seek help if the discomfort persists or worsens.