A guide to bloating: causes & prevention
Do your trousers dig in after every meal? Or perhaps your stomach resembles a beachball months after summer is over? You could be suffering from bloating, but help is at hand.
First, see your GP to rule out anything more serious such as coeliac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) if you’ve been suffering for several months.
We need to eat, but the after-effects of a heavy meal aren’t always so enjoyable – in fact, nearly one in three of us experience an uncomfortable bloated feeling after meals.1
This guide gives you the lowdown on the causes of bloating, and how you can help manage it with the right food, lifestyle or supplement choices.
Supplying your gut with the right balance of these nutrients can aid the smooth running of the digestion process.
And as a result, you may find you’re feeling the need to loosen your waistband less often.
In this article, you’ll find out
- What bloating is
- 9 causes of bloating
- 12 foods that cause bloating
- 14 ways to prevent bloating
- How to reduce bloating
- 4 types of food to help bloating
Bloating is a feeling of pressure or heaviness in your tummy, usually caused by excess gas.2
Your trousers or skirt may feel tight around the waist, as if you’ve suddenly gained several pounds.3
Other symptoms of bloating include:
- Uncomfortable, full stomach
- Stomach cramps
- Burping and passing wind4,5
For some people, bloating is just a minor inconvenience.
But a 2014 article in Gastroenterology & Hepatology revealed that for more than half of people with bloating, it significantly impacts their quality of life.6
Bloating is the sensation caused when your stomach fills with gas.
When your tummy feels blown out and the waistbands of clothing suddenly get tighter.7,8
For some people, bloating is only a sensation. For others, it’s accompanied by a physical expansion of the stomach area (officially known as abdominal distension.)9
- Bloating refers to the feeling of a tight, full or swollen abdomen
- It’s usually a sensation caused by gas trapped in the gastrointestinal tract
- Some people also experience a physical abdominal distension
9 bloating symptoms
Common symptoms of bloating10 include:
- Stomach pain – trapped wind may cause crampy tummy pains.11
- Tummy feels stretched and full – increased pressure in the abdomen creates a sensation of bloating. Your tummy may also feel hard or tight.
- Constipation – being unable to regularly empty your bowels can put pressure on the space in your gut.12
- A sensation of excessive gas in the abdomen – probably down to an accumulation of gas somewhere in your gastrointestinal tract.
- Flatulence – once excess air travels down into your oesophagus, where does it go next? Frequently passing wind is one way gas is released.
- Burping or belching – another way excess air is excreted.
- Nausea – stomach bloating and nausea often happen at the same time.
- Tummy looks bigger – the sensation of bloating is sometimes accompanied by a physical increase in the diameter of the abdomen.13
- Stomach gurgling and rumbling – caused by the movement of gas and fluids in the intestines.14
- Bloating happens when your GI tract fills with gas
- This leads to a variety of symptoms
- Common signs of bloating are feeling stretched, the sensation of feeling full, passing wind, burping and stomach ache
What causes bloating?
When you have a disproportionate amount of gas lurking in your gut for some reason, your body may struggle to excrete this excess air.
If your digestive system is sensitive to these changes, bloating is a side effect.
You may feel bloated when there’s more gas than usual inside your gut, or if your gut is extra-sensitive.15
This may be due to:
- Eating too many gas-promoting foods, like beans
- Drinking fizzy drinks, which release carbon dioxide
- Swallowing extra air, for example when eating or chewing gum
- Stress – for some people, anxiety can make them swallow extra air
- Gut bacteria – they ferment certain foods in your colon, producing gas
- Certain digestive conditions, for example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Food intolerances such as lactose intolerance16,17
What causes wind in the stomach?
We all carry a certain amount of gas in our digestive system.
Chewing food, gulping down a drink and talking can all cause you to swallow air. Certain activities can further elevate this – such as chewing gum, drinking fizzy drinks and smoking.18
In addition, sometimes your body produces more than normal amounts of gas. This happens for various reasons and contributes to feeling bloated.
- Your body’s sensitivity to gas – some people are more prone to bloating in reaction to even normal amounts of gas in the abdomen.
- Swallowing too much air – formally known as aerophagia. You may do it subconsciously when you’re feeling stressed and it can be exacerbated by smoking and chewing gum.
- Diet – certain foods, such as Brussels sprouts and broccoli, are famed for causing excess gas.
- Lactose intolerance – if your body finds it difficult to digest dairy products, you may find yourself prone to bloating.
- Intolerance to fructose – belly bloat is a common reaction to sensitivity to foods high in fructose, such as dried fruit and honey.
- Coeliac disease – people who are intolerant to gluten can experience bloating after eating wheat, barley and rye.
- Digestive conditions – for example, with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), spells of tummy pain are often accompanied by bloating as well as changes in bowel habits.
- Acute gastroenteritis – a tummy bug can sometimes cause an imbalance in gut flora that can lead to bloating.
- Medication – for example, a bloated tummy is a common unwanted side effect of laxatives and some antacids.19,20
What causes bloating in females?
Does your stomach feel bloated around the time of your period? Oestrogen has a big role in deciding how women retain water.
Levels of this hormone fluctuate during a woman’s monthly cycle, with the body typically retaining more water when oestrogen is higher in the week or so leading up to the start of a period.
As a result, a common symptom of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is bloating.
Bloated stomach after eating
The festive period is a common time to experience bloating, for obvious gluttonous reasons. But this can happen at any time of the year.
However, what you eat, as well as how much, can be equally to blame for your bloated belly.
For example, food intolerances can stimulate bacteria breakdown that produces gas and inflammation of the gut.
- Wheat – if you’re sensitive to gluten, bread, pizza, cakes and biscuits can be a trigger for bloating.
- Cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are known for being particularly gassy vegetables.
- Beans – legumes like lentils and chickpeas are fermented by gut bacteria in the colon. The process can produce excess gas
- Fibre – high fibre foods, such as beans, fruit and peas, absorb water in the gut causing bloating.
- Onions and garlic – they’re both rich sources of fructans. These are complex sugars that your small intestine struggles to break down.
- Dried fruit – if your body has difficulty absorbing natural sugars, they may give you a bloating feeling.
- Salt – a diet that’s high in sodium can cause water retention, which adds to feelings of fullness.
- Fatty foods – foods that are high in fat take longer to digest, slowing down stomach emptying and adding to bloating.
- Alcohol – drinking too much can delay stomach emptying and cause your stomach to bloat.
- Carbonated drinks – the gassy fizz introduces extra air into your digestive system.
- Some artificial sweeteners – they’re sweet-tasting, but they’re not easy for your body to digest.
- Dairy foods – if you have a sensitivity to lactose you may find your waist expands after eating more than your gut can tolerate.21
- There are a number of food groups that can contribute to bloating
- Dairy, wheat-based foods, some sugars, salt, fizzy drinks, beans and cruciferous vegetables are common culprits
- These are foods that your body finds more difficult to digest or that produce gas as they’re broken down in your gut
Avoid swallowing extra air
It might sound like chewing a stick of gum would be a good tactic for helping you steer clear of those bloat-inducing high-fat foods.
But actually, researchers have found it can actually trigger trapped wind too.
Most chewing gums – even the sugary versions – contain artificial sweeteners, like sorbitol, which are poorly absorbed by the stomach, and can cause bloating and abdominal pain. In large doses, this can cause chronic diarrhea.35
And there’s another problem – all that chewing signals to your stomach that food is on its way, triggering the release of enzymes and stomach acids that aid digestion.
Yet with no food appearing, all that action going on inside your stomach can cause bloating.
- Cut back on chewing gum
- Avoid fizzy drinks
- Eat and drink more slowly
- Don’t smoke – when you inhale, you also swallow air
- Avoid wearing loose-fitting dentures
Eat regular meals throughout the day
You might think that your stomach will flatten if you skip a meal.
But you would be wrong, says Kirsten Crothers, specialist gastro dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
“Irregular eating can cause a build-up of gas, which means your stomach will end up bloated,” she says. “Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner helps keep the gut moving – this is called peristalsis – and it ensures that food is digested efficiently. Putting something in your stomach stimulates that movement, getting your system going.”
If there’s a long gap between your meals, make sure you eat a snack.
Try a piece of fruit, low-fat yoghurt, vegetable sticks or a low-sugar cereal bar to give you energy and fibre.
Handpicked article: How eating more frequently can benefit your health
Steer clear of smoothies and fruit juices
While eating fruit won’t increase bloating if it’s spread out across the day, do be careful of drinking smoothies and fruit juices.
These usually contain three portions of fruit, which means a huge dose of fibre all at once – and this can be a challenge for your body to digest, leading to bloating.
While it may not matter so much on a normal day, if you’re off to a party later, it’s best to avoid it.
Fruit juices, while they don’t contain as much fibre as smoothies, aren’t much better. “Juice has a lot of fructose – fruit sugar – which can cause bloating,” says Kirsten.
Be careful of portion sizes
Eating large portions can lead to indigestion and bloating. “It puts a lot of pressure on the digestive system and produces a lot of gas,” says Kirsten.
So read the packet of pasta or rice, follow the recommended portion size and weigh it out before you cook it. Your body will find the meal much easier to digest.
Go for a walk
Moderate aerobic exercise – even a brisk walk – can be very effective at preventing bloating by lowering stress levels, says personal trainer Laura Williams.
“One theory is that exercise helps to speed up the passage of gas through the digestive tract,” she says. “Aim to walk for at least 15 minutes to give your digestive system enough time to respond.”
Drink peppermint tea
You might fancy a quick coffee to perk you up before you go out – but this is not a good idea.
“Caffeine stimulates the nervous system around the bowel, adding to bloating,” says Kirsten. “If you are prone to bloating, this can aggravate it.” She advises avoiding colas and coffee from midday onwards as caffeine stays in the body for around eight hours.
Instead, look out for peppermint tea – researchers have found that it can reduce stomach distension and help to prevent bloating symptoms.
Choose an easy-to-digest main meal
Think ‘meat and two veg’ as the ideal meal on the day of a party: it’s low in fat and plain so won’t irritate your stomach, while also containing a balance of protein, fibre and carbohydrates.
“The result is that your gut keeps moving efficiently,” says Kirsten. Good choices are grilled or oven-baked chicken or Quorn with mixed herbs, potatoes and veg.
Gut-friendly eating habits
As more and more science around gut health emerges, we’re increasingly bombarded with conflicting opinions on how diet impacts digestion.
While some blame gluten, others call out lactose as the culprit. But there are a few eating habits that most dietitians agree on.
Before we talk about specific foods that can help to reduce bloating, here are a few golden rules.
- Drink plenty of water – fluids encourage the passage of waste through your digestive system. Also, without water, fibre can’t do its job.
- Slowly increase your fibre intake – but not too much – a diet rich in fibre, from a variety of sources can support the digestion process. Although too much fibre can also cause bloating, so some moderation is wise.
- Cut down on fat – fatty foods are harder to digest. Cutting back eases the pressure on your gut by reducing its workload.
- Add friendly bacteria to your diet – whether you choose supplement form or look for natural food sources, increasing levels of friendly bacteria in your gut offers many digestive health benefits.
- Limit or avoid carbonated beverages, alcohol and drinks containing caffeine – these drinks can lead to bloating, increase acid in the stomach and can irritate a sensitive digestive system. Coffee can also stimulate the digestive tract causing muscle spasms. Drinking less of these fluids can make digestion problems less likely.
When you feel bloated, these tips could help reduce the discomfort:
- Try activated charcoal – 1g of activated charcoal at least 30 minutes before a meal and another 1g after the meal can ease excess gas, says the European Food Safety Authority36
- Try peppermint oil – a 2014 review by Italy’s University of Salerno reported it may help reduce bloating in people with IBS37
- Exercise regularly – a 2006 study in American Journal of Gastroenterology reported that pedalling on an exercise bike reduced bloating, but you could try walking or jogging, too38
- Consider digestive enzymes – a 2014 Belgian study found digestive enzymes may help with bloating39
Around 100 trillion bacteria live in your gut. Maintaining the diversity of this bacteria is important to gut health. For example, to ease bloating.
Nothing is more influential to the balance of your gut microbiome than what you eat and drink.
The foods you eat are not just part of the cause of your digestive discomfort. They may also hold the answer to how to reduce bloating.
While some foods can trigger your digestive discomfort, others could help it.
Here we focus on four food groups that can help.
But a note of caution, rather than focussing on eating any one category, aim to get diverse nutrients from all of these gut-friendly food groups.
Sources include: wheats (e.g. spelt and durums), rice, barley, maize, rye, millets, oats, buckwheat, quinoa
Fibre helps to keep our digestive system healthy and support gut mobility which could have a positive effect one bloating.
Whole grains are a rich source of fibre, making whole grain breakfast cereals and whole wheat pasta good gut-friendly alternatives.
Sources include: sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, kefir, miso, kombucha
Fermented foods are rich in friendly bacteria. By adding these foods to your diet, you can increase the levels of good bacteria and enzymes in the digestive system.
This benefits the health of your gut, which optimises the digestion process. But note, the friendly bacteria has to be live when you consume it so choose unpasteurised alternatives.40,41
Sources include: garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, chives
Allium vegetables contain prebiotics.
These are compounds that feed the microorganisms in fermented foods and help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut.
Incorporating garlic and onions into your meals is a good way to integrate alliums into your everyday cooking routine.42
Beans and pulses
Sources include: kidney beans, black beans lentils, chickpeas, haricot beans, pinto beans
Fibre is an important part of a healthy diet. The NHS advises a daily intake of around 30g.43 Beans are rich in fibre and so incorporating them into your diet can help to hit this target.
Aim for moderation and diversity
Overloading your diet with any of these foods is unlikely to help. It could in fact make your bloating worse.
For example, increasing fibre and not increasing water can worsen constipation. This is because water is needed to help fibre to pass through the digestive tract.
Another example is, for people with digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, eating large quantities of allium vegetables can trigger gas, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.
Food intolerances and allergies
If your body has difficulty digesting food, your bowel may not empty properly.
This sometimes leads to the production of too much gas and this excess air may get trapped.44
Foods that are more likely to cause problems are:
- FODMAPS (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.) – our bodies can find it hard work to digest the sugars in this group of foods (including wheat, onions, garlic and beans.) This leaves some of us with more gas in our digestive system.
- Wheat – if you’re sensitive to gluten or have problems digesting it, foods containing wheat can cause a painful bloated stomach.
- Dairy – if you don’t have a sufficient supply of the enzyme to break down lactose in your gut, eating dairy foods can cause a bloated belly.
Bloating is a symptom of a number of chronic diseases, including:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – the NHS suggests that ‘erratic propulsion of contents through the bowel’ may cause bloating in people with IBS.
- Coeliac disease – if your intestine can’t absorb gluten found in wheat, barley and rye it can trigger all kinds of digestive discomfort.
- Colitis and Crohn’s disease – these are conditions caused by inflammation of the gut wall. Gas-related symptoms, such as bloating, can often develop as a result.45
Read on to find out the answers to some of the most asked questions about bloating…
Can stress cause bloating?
As we learn more about the gut-brain axis, it’s plausible that there’s a link between stress and bloating.
For example, in some people, anxiety and angst can lead to sluggish gut function, making digestive discomfort, such as belly bloat, worse.46
Is your bloated belly a sign of something else?
Tummy bloating is usually a harmless annoyance we experience from time to time. And the good news is, it’s usually short-lived.
For example, if it’s caused by your gut’s intolerance for gluten, removing wheat from your meals can often put a stop to bloating and gas after eating.
If your stomach is always bloated or it’s accompanied with other symptoms, it’s worth seeking guidance from your GP.
Why do some people experience a painful bloated stomach?
Having a constantly bloated stomach doesn’t necessarily mean you’re producing more gas than usual.
And it’s not always a symptom of an underlying condition. In some people, it’s simply an overreaction to normal amounts of gas in the abdomen.
And unfortunately, the reasons why this happens to some individuals and not others aren’t fully understood.47
- A certain amount of gas lurks in our guts
- Some people experience bloating due to an increase in gas, which can happen for a number of reasons
- Certain foods, digestive conditions and food intolerances are among the most common causes of bloating
- Certain people find they are sensitive to even normal amounts of gas
When is bloating serious?
Bloating isn’t usually anything to worry about, but can sometimes be a sign of more serious health conditions.48
See your GP if your bloating continues or you also have unexplained weight loss, blood in your stools or persistent diarrhoea.49,50
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
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