Have you ever slipped on your jeans in the morning, only to realize there's no chance they're going to button? Of course you have — we've all been there. Just like there was that time last week when, in the middle of the day, your belly felt distended and you couldn't stop passing gas. There's a name for those experiences: Bloat. And it's one of the great joys of being human.
"Bloating is normal and it is part of our digestive process," says Laura Manning, a registered dietician in the department of gastroenterology at in New York City. What may not be normal though, is constantly feeling like your stomach is swollen. If that's the case, one of these problems could be putting your gut in a rut.
1. You’re skipping meals.
If you're the kind who never eats breakfast and lives on coffee until it's time for lunch, that habit could be the reason for ongoing bloat. Manning says it's likely your stomach is searching for something to digest because you should actually be eating a meal. But because you're not, your body instead creates gas that leads to bloat. And if you're skipping a morning meal only to then gorge on lunch — AKA eat more than your stomach can actually handle — that can cause a lot of bloating too, she adds.
2. You're sitting too much.
Sit all morning, rush to lunch, eat at your desk, barely move until it’s time to clock out. Sound familiar? This pattern of staying sedentary through most of the work day can make it hard for food to move through your digestive tract, which can lead to feeling bloated, Manning says. "[That's why] I'll often tell someone to go take a walk after lunch to help them to digest so they don't feel so uncomfortable,” she explains.
Speaking of going for a walk, being active can be extremely helpful if your bloat seems to be related to constipation. “Exercise helps speed up your bowel transit and helps you to go to the bathroom more frequently,” Manning says. So even if you’re not interested in becoming a fitness beast, a routine that gets your blood flowing may be what you need to help get your bowels in shape.
3. You’re eating a lot of FODMAPs.
FOD what? A FODMAP, which is an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, refers to carbohydrates that some people may be sensitive to. “These are short-chain fatty carbohydrate sugars, and we can't absorb them very well in the gut,” says , M.D., a gastroenterology doctor at the UW Medicine digestive health center. Doctors believe that the bacteria in your gut tends to ferment these carbohydrate sugars, creating gases like carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane in the GI tract, Dr. Eugenio says. This process then causes your good friend bloat to say hello.
But what foods qualify as FODMAPs? Beans, garlic, onion, dairy, apples, pears, and peaches are common ones that people struggle with, reports the , an organization familiar with FODMAPs because that patients with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, can benefit from limiting their consumption of these foods. But it doesn't mean you have to cut them out entirely. Manning notes that the amount you consume seems to be important, which is why many people feel uncomfortable after eating a plate full of beans when they haven't had them in awhile.
It’s also possible to build up a tolerance for foods when introduced over time, and everyone has thresholds for how much of a food their gut will tolerate. “[Maybe] you can have half of an apple and not feel discomfort, [while] a full apple is going to make you feel very uncomfortable,” Manning explains. Eating these foods in conjunction with fats and protein (so, an apple with a smear of peanut butter) can also help lessen symptoms of bloat.
4. You forgot about fiber.
Another reason fiber is such an important nutrient — it can stop bloat in its tracks, as it's what bacteria need to maintain a healthy microbiome, Dr. Eugenio says. A healthy microbiome helps create a happy GI tract, which means less bloating. Unfortunately, your diet may not include enough of the stuff: A of more than 9,000 people found that 58% of women’s calories came from ultra-processed foods, which often lack quality fiber sources.
Bloating that's related to constipation can be especially helped by fiber. “When [soluble fiber] is in the colon, it absorbs water and adds bulk to the stool,” Dr. Eugenio says. “People can have a more complete evacuation when they have more fiber in their diet.”
Whole foods like kale, spinach, and other leafy greens are your best fibrous options, Dr. Eugenio explains, but if you’re struggling to get the recommended amount (25 grams a day, per the ), you may want to consider supplements. “One fiber that's really good for the digestive tract is ,” Dr. Eugenio says. It’s derived from the gum of an acacia tree and has a prebiotic effect, and you can get it over the counter.
5. You have a gut disorder.
Functional gastrointestinal disorders happen when the GI tract doesn’t appear to have anything wrong with it, but you're still experiencing uncomfortable symptoms, according to the . It's a situation that's actually very common in the United States, Dr. Eugenio says.
For example, 25 to 45 million people in the U.S. have IBS, which affects the colon, reports the. And functional dyspepsia, which affects the stomach and is otherwise known as indigestion, affects nearly 32% of the population, according to a 2004 study published in .
Bloating is common with both of these disorders, although you’ll usually experience other symptoms alongside it, Dr. Eugenio says. Upper stomach pain or feelings of fullness paired with bloating may be indicative of dyspepsia, for example, whereas lower abdomen cramping and a change in bowel habits could point to IBS. Both are worth speaking to your doctor about, and treatment can include diet changes, psychosocial therapies, and other lifestyle changes, reports the . Of course, your doctor will want to rule out first, like colon cancer, pancreas disorders, or liver disease, so it's important to open up about any and all symptoms you're experiencing.