Do some foods make you feel more like a balloon than a human? Some amounts of gas and bloating are considered normal. But, excess gas and bloating can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. We’re here to help you identify the culprits with a list of the most common foods that cause gas, bloating, or distention!
First, what is gas?
Passing gas - or “flatulence” - is a natural, biological process of air from the digestive system coming out through the end of the digestive tract. We do it, even without knowing it sometimes, about 14 times a day. It’s also normal for gas to smell a bit. But, if you do it more than what’s considered normal, or pass gas that is very smelly, it may be embarrassing.
What causes gas?
There are several reasons why you might have excess gas.
One reason might be body mechanics, or how your body is operating. There is a typical “transit time” for food to move through your body. This is the time starting when you chew your food and swallow it, to when it is passed through as waste. You might not think about it every time you flush the toilet, but your food has taken a long journey through your digestive tract.
If you have constipation, your food remains in the body longer, and it can ferment in your system with your thriving bacteria in your microbiome, leading to built up gas. Those same bacteria can also become off balance, and a change in bacteria might cause more gas in your system.
If your gas only occurs after you eat something in particular, your gas might be related to something you’re eating. If you lack a certain enzyme, like lactase to digest lactose, any dairy products that you eat or drink are poorly absorbed and thus - more gas. Other intolerances and digestive diseases like celiac disease might also cause excess gas.
Also, some foods are just known to cause gas! You might know the song, “beans beans the magical fruit the more you eat the more you toot.” Beans, along with anything in the pulses family like lentils can cause gas. High fiber foods are known to cause gas.
What is bloating & distention?
Bloating is a common issue, estimated to affect up to a third of U.S. adults, and up to 90% of those with irritable bowel syndrome. Bloating is feeling like you have a balloon filling up with air in your abdomen, protruding to the front. It feels like trapped air that you can’t get out even if you try to squeeze it out, or try to produce gas.
Distension is a similar sensation to bloating. Distension feels like your intestines are filling outwards towards the sides of your body - like you are growing into a giant circle. This is opposed to bloating, that comes outwards from your abdomen only, like someone who is pregnant. Sometimes, you can have bloating and distention, feeling uncomfortable and full of gas which can make you feel as though you’ll have to be rolled away because you feel so round.
What causes bloating or distention?
There could be several reasons for feeling bloated or distended.
- Too much gas in the intestine, from something like carbonated beverages or swallowing too much air while eating (ex. chewing gum)
- Abnormal levels or an imbalance of bacteria in the intestine, or SIBO.
- Food intolerances that can cause gas and bloating such as lactose intolerance
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), that causes an increased perception of your digestive system, causing “exaggerated sensations of pain” (visceral hyperalgesia) along with bloating and distention
- Gastroparesis, a motility disorder causing your stomach to empty very slowly or even not at all, can make you feel bloated after eating even small amounts of food
- Chronic constipation can trap gas in the intestines, leading to bloating
Foods that cause the most gas, bloating, and/or distention
FODMAPs (Fermentable oligosaccharides disaccharides monosaccharides and polyols) are a group of sugars that are not completely digested by our intestines. They move slowly through the intestines and draw water into your bowels. Because they are slow moving, they sit and ferment with the help of gut bacteria and cause gas. This excess water and gas cause the intestines to stretch, causing bloating, and in IBS it can trigger the feeling of pain.
Unlike diets for some food intolerances, a low FODMAP diet is meant to be temporary. You’ll usually be put on a low FODMAP diet for a short time, typically under the guidance of a dietitian or trained nutritionist. It will also be helpful to use Monash University’s popular FODMAP app. After some time of elimination, you will ultimately introduce a food challenge using one FODMAP at a time. Ultimately, you’ll find your individual sensitivity to any or all FODMAPs, or how much of each type of FODMAP works for your needs.
Some dairy products, like milk, soft cheeses, ice cream, and – to a lesser extent - yogurt, are high in lactose, and can cause problems for many. It can cause a problem even without a specific food allergy to dairy.
Many adults in fact have lactose intolerance, because they lack lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose into its component monosaccharides glucose and galactose. This often happens later in life, when adults may lose their lactase and, thus, their ability to fully digest dairy products. In addition to gas and bloating, you might also have diarrhea, nausea, and cramps.
Those who have untreated celiac disease might also lose their lactase and become lactose intolerant. Celiac disease in fact causes intestinal inflammation and villous blunting of the small intestine. Imagine your intestine filled with little fingers waving around. The surface area of your fingers and between your fingers represent all the space that these villi have to digest and absorb precious nutrients in your system. Now, imagine if all the villi that are supposed to look like fingers actually look like a closed fist - little surface area to truly digest and absorb nutrients. This villous blunting - decreasing the surface area - is detrimental to your health. It’s this intestinal inflammation and blunting that causes a secondary lactose intolerance. However, on a gluten-free diet, the celiac disease-caused lactose intolerance generally regresses completely, as villi regrow and lactase reappears, restoring your ability to digest lactose.
What to eat instead
Thankfully, it’s easy to substitute dairy products in your diet! The rise of the plant-based or vegan diets has helped bring dairy-free and lactose-free products to more grocery stores and supermarkets. Even major fast food chains are offering vegan items that include dairy substitutes. Cow’s milk can be substituted with nut milk, seed milk, and grains like oat milk.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Yes, gluten is found in bread products, crackers and pasta, but wheat is used as a filler in many products from sauces to soups to snack bars, chips and even some commercially available vitamins.
For individuals with untreated celiac disease, an exposure to gluten may cause gas, bloating, diarrhea and dozens of other symptoms, even those seemingly unrelated to the gastrointestinal tract. We need to keep in mind that celiac disease is not just an intolerance to gluten, but rather a systemic autoimmune disease!
If you’ve already been diagnosed with celiac disease, an episode of gas or bloating – while possibly simply correlated to a meal with lots of fibers - may also mean you’ve been exposed to gluten through cross contamination or incidental exposure. It’s important to have regular follow up with your gastroenterologist if you experience bloating or gas after you’ve been on a strict gluten free diet. Today, there are many ways for a gastroenterologist to ascertain if you have been eating gluten before resorting to an endoscopy!
What to eat instead
Thankfully, the gluten-free product industry is experiencing a boom, with gluten-free food products available in mainstream supermarkets, fast food chains, and restaurants and bakeries across the country. Wheat, rye, and barley can be easily substituted with gluten-free grains like rice, corn, oats, quinoa, sorghum, and millet.
It seems like everyone loves sparkling water these days, one of the fastest growing categories in beverages. On top of sparkling water, there has been an influx of carbonated alcoholic beverages besides beer - sparkling seltzer is now a top seller for alcohol brands. But these delicious drinks may make you bloat. Sparkling water makes it “sparkle” from added carbon dioxide. The tiny bubbles also make their way to your digestive tract, where it can lead to gas and bloating.
What to drink instead
Drinking still water is a great alternative to sparkling water, although not as exciting! Try adding in or infusing in fresh fruit to your water for a flavor change!
Beer, like sparkling water, is a carbonated beverage, and in addition is of course alcoholic. Drinking beer, in addition to making you feel “heavy” or full, can make you also feel gassy and bloated.
What to drink instead
If you have an issue with wheat or barley-based beer giving you gas or bloating, try drinking a gluten-free beer made with sorghum or millet. If all beer makes you gassy or bloated, try drinking a flat alcoholic drink, like wine or liquor mixers.
Salt helps your body retain water, and might cause a change in your gut’s bacterial production, which might lead to uncomfortable bloating. If you eat salty foods, like pizza, sandwiches, soups, deli meat or those popular charcuterie trays, you might be getting that bloat from salt. Sodium intake should definitely be given a closer look if you have hypertension. Americans eat every day on average 3,400 mg of sodium, vs the FDA recommended 2,300! Helpful hints on controlling sodium intake can be found at Sodium in Your Diet | FDA
What to eat instead
A low-sodium diet can help decrease bloating caused by high salt intake. Try purchasing packaged products with “no salt added” or “sodium free” labeling, and looking for salt-free spices to use for cooking. Look into the DASH diet, along with the Lower Sodium DASH diet, both reduce the amount of sodium compared to a typical American diet.
It’s important to find a balance in what you eat - and there’s a fine line between too much and too little fiber. Fiber can create bloating by providing your gut bacteria in your microbiome with plenty to eat and digest, causing gas.
What to eat instead
While fiber is a vital part of any diet, some people can have too much of a good thing. A low-fiber, restricted-fiber diet, or low-residue diet might be used for a number of medical conditions such as during a flare of a gastrointestinal condition like gastroparesis or IBD, or after a gastrointestinal surgery. This diet focuses on refined grains, meats and fish, seedless/peel-less fruits, fruit juice without pulp, and skipping nuts and legumes - all keeping dietary fiber low for short periods of time.
How can I stop excess gas or bloating?
It’s important to know that gas and bloating are very common. But when they start to impact your everyday life, it might be time to seek help to address the main causes.
There are numerous scientifically proven ways to reduce regular bloating which are worth exploring but, bear in mind everyone’s digestion mechanics are unique. Dr. Guandalini, MD, pediatric gastroenterologist and celiac disease specialist, recommends firstly to take a look at your diet and see if possibly the bloating is simply due to an excessive intake of fiber (legumes, etc.), or carbonated beverages. If this does not seem to be the case, then you may try peppermint oil, as it’s easy to find at any pharmacy or health food store, and has a good clinical support.
Additionally, some probiotics have been shown to reduce bloating, and may well be worth trying (but note that not all available probiotics are equally effective). This approach will however require a few weeks of trial to see if that individual mix of bacteria is effective for your own microbiome.
If these remedies aren’t the answer, it’s time to work with a gastroenterologist to find the reason behind the bloating and gas. Be prepared for your initial visit with a food diary and a list of medications you take.
Put together a list of symptoms as they relate to bowel habits. Do the symptoms occur right after eating? Do the symptoms change in relation to your bowel habits? With these answers, and a list of your current symptoms, your gastroenterologist might recommend further testing including:
- Breath testing (for SIBO or the rare sucrose intolerance – due to the genetic sucrase-isomaltase deficiency)
- Transit studies to see how food moves from the stomach further down into your digestive system
- X-rays or ultrasounds
- Blood testing
- Stool analysis
- Upper endoscopy and biopsy
Depending on the results, you may be prescribed medication or additional care like:
- Antispasmodics to relax the muscles in the intestines for IBS
- Antibiotics used to lessen bloating for IBS with SIBO
- Prokinetics, or medications that help improve transit time through the digestive tract
- A Low FODMAP diet
- Gut-directed hypnotherapy to help with IBS-like symptoms or anxiety around bloating
- Antidepressants proven to help with bloating in people with IBS
- Change diet to reflect any food-based issues with gas and bloating
Gas and bloating may well be normal reactions to eating food, and food moving through the digestive tract. However, if they are embarrassing, causing stress, or have changed recently, it may be time to seek help. A gastroenterologist can help you examine your diet, look at your symptoms, and run tests to find what’s causing this gas, bloating, or distention. Oftentimes, it’s as easy as modifying your diet to fit your unique needs and the needs of your personalized microbiome.