That heavy feeling after a large meal, followed by a huge bloated gut, is not exactly the nicest feeling and it can certainly cause discomfort. If you regularly experience symptoms associated with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) including bloating, belching, indigestion, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation and a distended gut, you may be in need of a digestion overhaul. Identifying the reasons for your symptoms should be first on your list, followed by a nutritional protocol to encourage healthy digestion, leaving you symptom free.
If you google ‘foods to beat the bloat’, you will come across numerous blogs recommending so-called wonder foods to ‘banish’ bloating and to keep your stomach flat; please – don’t be fooled by such simplistic advice after trawling the internet. Looking at the physiology of the digestive tract, it is apparent that eating a supposed ‘superfood’ is not going to stop your excess gas production if you are unable to break down certain foods in your stomach and intestines. Digestion is a little more complicated than eating one food to flatten your stomach, and therefore we need to concentrate on optimising digestion all round.
What is bloating and why do we bloat?
Bloating is something that we experience most commonly a couple of hours after eating a meal. The term bloating should not be used to describe an expanding waistline as a result of putting on weight, but rather if you look slim when you rise in the morning, and have a pot belly by the time you have eaten dinner, you may have some investigating to do. Bloating is usually a result of food improperly broken down, resulting in large food particles fermenting in the gut, producing plenty of unwanted gas as a result. Fortunately there is a lot we can do to improve our digestion, giving us the ability to control symptoms.
Breaking down food properly
When a meal is consumed, the mouth releases saliva containing amylase – a digestive enzyme to begin the process of digestion while we chew food into smaller pieces. This enzyme production is even stimulated by the smell of a tasty meal, preparing the digestive system for what is to come. In the stomach, hydrochloric acid is then released to break food into even smaller particles, and the pancreas then finishes off this digestion process by releasing a host of powerful digestive enzymes to further break down food, ready for the absorption of nutrients.
“have the majority of your drinks half an hour before meals rather than during, to keep up a good concentration of gastric juices.”
When eating a large meal, it is inevitable that the foods and liquids will take up space in the digestive tract, so of course you would expect a little expansion around your middle; however, if eating a meal causes you to look like you’re in an advanced state of pregnancy (you may even have experienced the shock/horror of being congratulated on your forthcoming event), you may have an issue breaking down food, i.e. poor digestion. Symptoms of indigestion vary from mild cases of a temporary feeling of gentle bloating and gas production, to constant pain and discomfort. If insufficient digestion occurs on a regular basis, the immune system may eventually react to undigested food particles, resulting in an intolerance. Additional inflammation associated with intolerances may also result in symptoms of IBS, whereby inconsistent bowel movements result in gas accompanied by pain and alternating bouts of diarrhoea and constipation.
Foods that bloat us
Individual ability to break down foods can explain why some people may produce more gas than others. Milk, for example, may be easy for one individual to digest, but difficult for another. The variation in individual ability to digest certain foods depends on the enzymes we produce. When someone who lacks the digestive enzyme lactase (required to break down lactose, the natural sugar in milk) consumes foods containing lactose, they experience an increased production of gas. (1)
To overcome this inability to break down certain foods, digestive enzymes can be taken at the beginning of a meal to give your digestive system a helping hand. Lactase is only one of the many digestive enzymes we need to break down foods. Proteases help the body to break down protein-rich foods, amylases to break down carbohydrates and lipases to break down fats. If you take a supplement containing a wide range of digestive enzymes, you are much more likely to digest a large meal properly.
Bloating most commonly corresponds to difficulties in digesting different types of carbohydrate foods. The main group of commonly aggravating carbohydrates include the ‘FODMAPs’, a group of short-chain carbohydrates including fructose (found in fruit), lactose (found in milk), sugar alcohols such as xylitol (often found in chewing gum) and other foods such as onions, garlic, beetroot, beans, peas and wheat.
Following a low FODMAPs diet, i.e. limiting foods such as fruit, milk and wheat has been shown to be very effective at reducing digestive complaints (such as bloating) associated with irritable bowel syndrome. (4) When looking at the effects of fructose, for example, low absorption and fermentation of fructose causes gas production (2), and restriction of high fructose foods has been shown to reduce symptoms of bloating. (3)
“Bloating most commonly corresponds to difficulties in digesting different types of carbohydrate foods. The main group of commonly aggravating carbohydrates include the ‘FODMAPs’…”
Foods which are difficult to break down generally include those with high levels of fibre. Grains such as wheat, barley and rye, fruit and beans most commonly cause bloating due to fermentation and they also absorb a lot of water, producing a significant amount of bulk in your digestive tract. Fibre is often added to foods in the belief that this will help us to eat less by keeping us feeling full; for most people, however, it appears that adding fibre to foods just increases bloating and flatulence symptoms. (6) Fibre is healthy for us in moderation, as fibre helps to flush toxins out of the body, keeps the muscles of the digestive tract in good shape, and helps to excrete excess hormones; however, it appears that if bloating is a problem for you, it may be wise to moderate your fibre intake. Individual sensitivity to gases produced by fermentable fibres can vary greatly from person to person, and diet and bacteria present in the gut can also affect tolerability to such gases.
Brussels sprouts are also very well known for their ability to produce excess gas, and this is due to a sugar called raffinose which can only be broken down by bacteria in the large intestine, a process which produces a lot of gas. Other foods containing raffinose include beans, broccoli and cabbage.
Although healthy foods such as garlic and onions may cause additional bloating for one individual, these may actually lower bloating for someone else as these foods help to encourage growth of good bacteria in the gut. As the cause of bloating varies so considerably from person to person, it is important not to worry about cutting out all foods which may aggravate, but more importantly you should concentrate on identifying what the problem is for you and which foods may be aggravating your symptoms.
“Taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement is highly recommended for anyone experiencing bloating symptoms, but be wary of probiotic drinks, as many of these contain milk and sugars which can actually do more harm than good…”
Bloating can also certainly be the result of not chewing food properly, making it harder for your digestive system to break down food properly, and if also swallowing air in the process of eating (not uncommon), this can exacerbate a bloated stomach immediately after eating, followed by belching. Drinking alongside eating a main meal is also a common habit in the UK, which dilutes digestive juices, making digestion of food particles less effective. Drinking fizzy drinks is particularly notorious for producing excess gas in the stomach.
Healthy bacteria and yeast
A healthy balance of bacteria and yeast actually supports digestion in the large intestines, however some gut bacteria ferment fibre, producing unwanted gas in the large intestine, resulting in bloating and flatulence. Placebo-controlled trials have shown that supplementary probiotics successfully reduces bloating in both those with irritable bowel syndrome as well as those who simply experience bloating. (5)
Taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement is highly recommended for anyone experiencing bloating symptoms, but be wary of probiotic drinks, as many of these contain milk and sugars which can actually do more harm than good for someone with a difficulty in breaking down lactose, or with bacterial imbalances which may feed on sugars. The safest bet is to take a high strength probiotic capsule containing at least 5 billion probiotic microorganisms.
Natural probiotic yoghurt or fermented milk drinks such as kefir may also help considerably in balancing gut bacteria – for those who can tolerate dairy.
5 steps to beat the bloat
Change your eating habits
Allow time to sit down while eating. If you spend time looking forward to your meal and smelling foods while preparing your food, your saliva will actually start to begin the digestion process by producing amylase. Next, you must concentrate on chewing your food thoroughly until no large lumps are left to break down into small particles – remember that your stomach does not have teeth! Also, aim to have the majority of your drinks half an hour before meals rather than during, to keep up a good concentration of gastric juices. Aim to eat slowly to give your body time to recognise the food and digest it properly.
Include supplements to support digestion
Consider supplements to support proper breakdown of foods, including a digestive enzyme providing amylases, proteases and lipases to digest carbohydrates, protein and fats. A probiotic supplement may also help to support proper breakdown of indigestible fibres in the large intestine with less gas production.
Keep inflammation low
Control inflammatory levels in the body by taking a concentrated omega-3 EPA supplement providing at least 1000mg EPA, such as Pharmepa RESTORE to help calm the digestive tract, allowing for healing and reduction of sensitivities.
Eliminate aggravating foods
Consider temporarily eliminating foods which commonly cause bloating due to difficulties breaking down; these include gluten, beans, vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, milk and sweeteners. After a month or so of eliminating these foods, if your symptoms have disappeared you could reintroduce them one at a time in order to identify which food or foods may be causing problems for you.
Refined sugars and high carbohydrate foods should also be kept to a minimum in order to promote a healthier gut flora balance, and to reduce risk of loading your digestive system with hard to digest sugars.
Eat a diet rich in non-fermenting foods
Vegetables such as peppers, courgettes, and salad such as lettuce and cucumber alongside protein-and fat rich foods such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs, nuts and healthy oils are unlikely to encourage bloating. If you are trying to identify foods which stimulate production of excess gas, you may wish to eat a diet consisting predominantly of these foods.
- Zhu Y, Zheng X, Cong Y, Chu H, Fried M, Dai N, et al. Bloating and distention in irritable bowel syndrome: the role of gas production and visceral sensation after lactose ingestion in a population with lactase deficiency. Am J Gastroenterol 2013 Sep;108(9):1516-25.
- Fedewa A, Rao SS. Dietary fructose intolerance, fructan intolerance and FODMAPs. Curr Gastroenterol Rep 2014 Jan;16(1):370.
- Choi YK, Kraft N, Zimmerman B, Jackson M, Rao SS. Fructose intolerance in IBS and utility of fructose-restricted diet. J Clin Gastroenterol 2008 Mar;42(3):233-8.
- Staudacher HM, Whelan K, Irving PM, Lomer MC. Comparison of symptom response following advice for a diet low in fermentable carbohydrates (FODMAPs) versus standard dietary advice in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. J Hum Nutr Diet 2011 Oct;24(5):487-95.
- Ringel-Kulka T, Palsson OS, Maier D, Carroll I, Galanko JA, Leyer G, et al. Probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM and Bifidobacterium lactis Bi-07 versus placebo for the symptoms of bloating in patients with functional bowel disorders: a double-blind study. J Clin Gastroenterol 2011 Jul;45(6):518-25.
- Karalus M, Clark M, Greaves KA, Thomas W, Vickers Z, Kuyama M, et al. Fermentable fibers do not affect satiety or food intake by women who do not practice restrained eating. J Acad Nutr Diet 2012 Sep;112(9):1356-62.