What causes bloating?
Bloating is more often than not caused by eating foods that the body cannot properly digest. This food then passes through the stomach and small intestine undigested, and ends up in the large intestine. Here bacteria begin to ferment the molecules of food, releasing gas which bloats the abdomen.
Therefore, one of the best ways to reduce bloating is to identify the foods that you are struggling to digest and tackling these – and this doesn’t always mean just cutting them out of your diet!
So which foods are most commonly found to cause bloating?
This includes peas, beans and lentils, which are infamous for causing gas! These foods contain Oligosaccharides, a type of carbohydrate that often makes up dietary fibre, and also a FODMAP. FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates that are notoriously difficult for the body to digest and they typically cause problems for people with sensitive digestive systems, such as people with IBS.
Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt contain a carbohydrate called lactose, which can only be broken down by an enzyme called lactase. Lactose intolerant people don’t have enough of this enzyme, so when they eat lactose-containing foods, this lactose ends up, undigested, in the large intestine where it begins to ferment. It is actually normal for this lactase production to reduce as we age, as we are supposed to stop breast-feeding after infancy, and therefore shouldn’t need this enzyme anyway. In fact, around 70% of the world’s total population are lactose intolerant! This varies between countries, cultures and ethnicities – for example, 90% of East Asian adults are lactose intolerant, but this drops to as low as 5% in parts of Northern Europe. This is thought to be because Northern Europe’s climate is generally more favourable for dairy farming than East Asia, so milk consumption is historically higher here.
Cruciferous vegetables include things like kale, broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. This group of vegetables have loads of health benefits, but they are also notorious for causing gas and bloating! These vegetables also contain Oligosaccharides as well as sulphur compounds. These sulphur compounds not only cause gas, but particularly unpleasant-smelling gas. These compounds, combined with the Oligosaccharides, make cruciferous vegetables a little tough on the digestive system.
Onions contain a carbohydrate called Fructan, which is another FODMAP and can be difficult to digest. Leeks and shallots have a similar effect in the body.
Apples and other fruit
Apples are particularly high in fibre, as well as sugars like fructose and sorbitol which many people struggle to digest. Eating apples too close to a meal can also cause bloating as these sugars will take longer to digest, giving them more time to ferment. Peaches, pears and prunes have a similar effect.
Foods containing gluten
Gluten is found in wheat, barley or rye, and it is often found in surprising places. Common gluten-containing foods include:
- Baked goods
- Oats (while these don’t contain gluten, they are often grown alongside wheat so can be easily contaminated)
- Some sauces and gravies such as soy sauce
If you are intolerant, sensitive or allergic to gluten then gluten-containing products will cause bloating. It isn’t exactly clear why gluten intolerance occurs. In some cases it may be that the body simply can’t digest the gluten molecules, which causes them to ferment and cause gas. However, the immune system is also thought to play a role in some cases, attacking the gluten and damaging your intestines at the same time.
Self help for bloating
Bloating is a common digestive complaint, and there are loads of things you can do about it. In some cases eating less ‘bloating foods’ is the right answer, but in some cases eating MORE is actually beneficial.
What to eat more of, and how to eat them
If your bloating is caused by fruit, legumes or cruciferous vegetables, then sometimes persevering is the answer. Start with small portions of the guilty food and slowly build up. This slowly strengthens your digestive system, helping it to get used to handling these hard-to-digest foods. This is important because many of these foods have important nutritional value, so cutting them out of your diet can mean you miss out on other important nutrients.
Warming or cooking these foods can make them easier to digest as some of the fibre is broken down as it is cooked. Whilst vegetables and legumes are generally eaten cooked anyway, people usually eat fruit raw which can be the source of the problem. Try stewing fruit like apples and pears with some spices for a delicious treat. And once they’re cooked, make sure to eat them before they cool down as colder food is harder to digest than warm food!
Blending fruit and vegetables into a smoothie can also help your stomach out by breaking the fibrous fruit into easier-to-digest pieces. Blending vegetables into a soup also makes them much easier to digest – how about a broccoli, potato and kale soup, or a classic carrot and lentil?
Incorporating more ginger, peppermint tea and probiotic foods (such as kefir, kimchi or probiotic yoghurts) into your diet can also support digestion and reduce bloating.
And whatever food you eat, make sure to chew it thoroughly – at least 20 times per mouthful!
What to cut, and what to replace them with
If your bloating is caused by a wheat or lactose intolerance then you should aim to reduce or cut these out of your diet. Keeping a food diary of the foods you eat and the symptoms you experience will help you identify which foods are the culprit.
If you are lactose intolerant, you can try taking a lactase enzyme supplement if you really want to keep eating dairy products. These pills have mixed reviews, but may be worth trying. The most effective thing, however, would be to cut lactose out of your diet. These days there are so many dairy alternatives that this is relatively easy to do. Soya is the most abundant alternative, with soya milk, yogurt, cream and cheese being readily available in most supermarkets and health stores. However, you can also try almond, coconut, rice and even hemp milk, as well as cashew cheese.
If you are gluten sensitive, you’ll find plenty of gluten-free foods in the free-from section of your local supermarket or health store.
You can cut foods like legumes, cruciferous vegetables and certain fruits out of your diet if they are really causing your problems even after following my advice above. If you do this, make sure to replace them with equally nutritious, non-bloating foods – banana, papaya, kiwi, cucumber and asparagus are some good options.
Are there any herbal remedies to help?
If you regularly suffer from bloating or feelings of fullness, or if you often feel a bit gassy after a meal, then you could try bitter herbs, such as those in our Digestisan remedy. Herbal bitters help to kick start your digestive enzymes, making it easier to digest food properly. It is best taken 10-15 minutes before a meal.
Strengthening your overall digestive system can also really help reduce bloating, as it means less undigested food is likely to end up in the large intestine. Molkosan is great for this, as it supports your natural gut bacteria, which play a major role in digestion. A probiotic may also help to replace friendly gut bacteria.