That damn bloated stomach. It just doesn’t make sense.
Why, then, is your stomach so bloated all the time? Why do you have to carry around a food baby all day and why does your skin feel like a waterlogged sponge?
You can consult Dr. Google, but that’s not going to get you very far.
Peruse just the first page of results and you’ll “discover” that there are precisely a million and one causes of stomach bloating and just as many “quick fixes” and “weird tricks” that claim to be able to banish bloat for good.
You’re skeptical, though. As you should be. You might want to believe that a pill or powder can give you a flat, toned stomach, but you know in your heart that it’s just wishful thinking.
And that’s why I’m glad you’re here.
In this article, you’re going to learn the real reason you’re so bloated all the time and I’m going to share with you 6 simple, science-based strategies for finally calming and flattening your belly.
Let’s get to it.
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You’re Probably Bloated for One of These 5 Reasons
Most cases of puffy little buddies hanging out in our midsections are caused by one of four things.
1. Too Much Body Fat
What many people think is chronic bloating is actually just too much body fat.
It’s easy to tell the difference here.
First, bloating can come and go in a hurry whereas body fat levels are much slower to change, whether up or down.
For example, if you’ve ever woken up looking like a million bucks but, by the end of the day, resembled Randy from Trailer Park Boys, that’s bloating. Body fat doesn’t accumulate that quickly, even when you binge.
The easiest way to tell if you’re dealing with too much fat or not is simply measuring your waist and navel every morning and night.
If the culprit is bloating, your readings will vary widely. If belly fat is to blame, however, readings will be consistent.
You should also know that if you’re a guy over 15% body fat or a girl over 25%, you’re always going to look and feel at least slightly bloated.
The flat, toned stomach you want is found around 10% (guys)/20% (gals) body fat.
2. Lactose Intolerance
Dairy is chock-full of a sugar called lactose, and for it to be of any use to the body, it must be broken down by special molecules called enzymes.
The enzyme needed to digest lactose is lactase (scientists aren’t exactly the most creative when it comes to naming things).
The problem with this is around 70% of people in the world don’t produce enough lactase, making them unable to fully and properly digest the lactose in the dairy foods they love so much.
What happens, then, is undigested and partially digested sugars land in the large intestine, where bacteria go to work on them, creating gas as a byproduct. As the gas builds up, the large intestine swells, and voila, you’re bloated.
3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS-Like Symptoms
Irritable bowel syndrome is an intestinal disorder that causes pain and discomfort in the abdomen, and one of its symptoms is bloating.
There’s a long list of physical and mental health problems that are known to contribute to IBS, but I’d like to focus on one in particular here:
A type of carbohydrate known as a FODMAP, which is short for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides.
FODMAPs are found in grains, like wheat, barley, and rye, as well as beans, dairy, and many fruits and vegetables.
They can cause bloating much the same way that lactose can — they’re tough to digest and some people’s bodies just can’t get the job done, which causes undigested foods to hit the large intestine, ready to be devoured by gas-producing bacteria.
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4. Sodium and Potassium Imbalance
A fair amount of the additional fluids you retain will sit under your skin, making it look thicker and softer.
This is one of the reasons why you’ve probably noticed a considerable amount of bloating the day after an epic cheating.
Now, this probably isn’t news to you, but you may not realize how easy it is to spike your sodium intake and bloat yourself.
One measly teaspoon of salt contains about 2.3 grams of sodium, and all it takes is a couple teaspoons above your normal intake to noticeably shift water retention levels.
This is why many cases of chronic bloating are “cured” by simply bringing sodium and potassium intakes under control.
Have you seen The Shawhank Redemption?
We spend the entire movie knowing the main character, Andy, didn’t commit the crime he was convicted of, but nobody else wants to believe it.
Well, hormones are the Andy of the health and fitness space. They always get a bum wrap.
Well, it’s just not true. People, including self-styled “gurus,” love to wheel out and pillory the endocrine system (the system that produces hormones) because it’s an easy scapegoat.
This system is so large and complex that a little pseudoscientific rambling is all it takes to flimflam a layman into reaching for his wallet.
The reality, though, is this:
Hormones factor into just about every physiological mechanism in the body, but when it comes to things like stagnant weight loss, slow muscle growth, and unsightly belly fat, they’re rarely the problem.
That said, when it comes to bloating, hormonal disturbances can be an important piece of the puzzle.
The best demonstration of this that I know of is an experiment conducted during World War II that would never pass an ethics board today.
Led by Dr. Ancel Keys, it was known as the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” and its purpose was to study the physical and psychological effects of starvation and create an effective regimen for helping starved POWs resume normal eating patterns and metabolic functions.
The experiment was conducted with 36 volunteers (war protesters that chose this over shipping overseas) and started with 12 weeks of daily hard labor and a “maintenance” diet of about 3,200 calories per day.
Next came the 6-month “semi-starvation” phase of the experiment, which consisted of cutting caloric intake in half to about 1,500 calories while maintaining the physical labor.
The investigators adjusted each man’s diet along the way with the goal of producing a ~25% reduction in body weight by the end of the 6-month period (yikes).
After the semi-starvation period, there was 20 weeks of “metabolic rehabilitation,” which consisted of restricted and unrestricted increases in caloric intake.
There’s quite a bit of fascinating information in the published findings of the study, but I want to zoom in on one observation in particular here.
In the beginning of the experiment, the men generally lost weight in predictable and linear fashion of about two pounds per week, every week.
After some time, though, weight loss became strangely nonlinear. Nothing would change on the scales for several weeks and, literally overnight, “bursts” of weight loss would occur, with men stepping out of bed several pounds lighter than the day before.
That is, the men did lose fat in the weeks where weight wasn’t changing but it was offset by equal, or even greater, amounts of water retention.
Now, you’re probably wondering what triggered the “water whooshes,” as they’re known in bodybuilding circles. Well, some occurred at random but scientists found that they most often followed acute increases in calorie intake.
For example, at the experiment’s halfway mark, a 2,300-calorie meal was served to celebrate. The scientists noted that many of the men woke up several times that night to pee and, the next morning, were several pounds lighter.
This, then, raised the question: what was causing the men’s bodies to retain large amounts of water and why did eating large amounts of food reverse this?
Well, the primary culprit was the hormone cortisol, and subsequent research has validated this decades-old hypothesis.
Basically, if you spike your cortisol levels, you’ll also spike the amount of water your body holds, leaving you bloated.
That being so, you’d expect a large reduction in cortisol levels to do the opposite then, right?
Well, that’s exactly what happened to the Minnesota Experiment patients.
The feast that triggered the whoosh substantially lowered cortisol levels (carbs are particularly good at reducing cortisol levels), which in turn caused the rapid expulsion of water.
The takeaway here is simple:
If you want to keep bloating to a minimum, you want to make sure your cortisol levels aren’t too high.
6 Science-Based Ways to Get Rid of Your Stomach Bloating
Now that you know where most stomach bloating comes from, let’s talk about how to get rid of it.
Figuring out what’s causing your bloating can take some trial and error, but if you’re like most people, the solution lies in one or more of the following six tips.
1. Get Your Bowels Moving
Before you start tinkering with your diet, make sure you’re not constipated because it’ll make your stomach bloating worse.
The point here is that you should just ensure you’re eating enough fiber, and if it’s going to help you in the bathroom, great.
2. Avoid Sodas and Other Gassy Beverages
The calculus here is simple.
Bloating is underpinned by two things: water retention and excess gas, and your favorite sodas are water infused with carbon dioxide gas to make them fizzy and sugary syrup to make them delicious.
Gassy drinks + your stomach = bloating.
3. Balance Your Sodium and Potassium Levels
If your stomach is bloated but you’re not constipated or drinking bubbly drinks, then you’ll need to dive a bit deeper to relieve the bloating.
And checking your sodium and potassium intake is a good place to start.
We recall that large increases in sodium intake cause bloating and water retention, but you should also know that not getting enough potassium can do the same.
Thus, the key here is maintaining a stable, adequate intake of both sodium and potassium.
I like to stick with the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, which is 1.5 to 2.3 grams of sodium and 4.7 grams of potassium per day.
(These numbers increase if you sweat a fair amount every day, which us fitness folk do. Personally I get about 3 to 4 grams of sodium and about 5 to 6 grams of potassium per day.)
Now, if you look over the sodium and potassium content of your diet, you’ll probably find it has too much of the former and too little of the latter.
So here are some simple ways to get these minerals where they need to be:
- Avoid canned or pre-packaged foods, deli meats, and processed meats like bologna and hot dogs.
- Cut back on table salt and spices in your cooking.
- Check the labels of sauces and salad dressings and choose lower sodium options.
- Include more potassium-rich foods in your diet/meal plans, such as beans, dark leafy greens, banana, potato, squash, salmon, and mushrooms.
4. Lower Your Cortisol Levels
Your body reacts to both physical and mental stress by increasing cortisol production.
This necessary and healthy — an integral part of the fight or flight response that has helped us survive the eons.
This becomes a problem when cortisol levels remain chronically elevated, though.
And if you’ve been in a caloric deficit for a long time, if you’re exercising too much, or if you’re dealing with abnormally high levels of physical or mental stress, there’s a very good chance your cortisol levels have been too high for too long.
And that means you’re going to also be holding a lot more water than you should be.
Fortunately, there are some quick and easy ways to bring cortisol levels down and keep them in healthy ranges:
- Don’t starve yourself
- Don’t overtrain
- Develop a daily relaxation routine
- Kick that low-carb diet to the curb
- Enjoy a refeed day while cutting
- Do a deload week in the gym
- Get enough sleep
5. Avoid Foods Known to Cause Gastrointestinal Problems
So far, we’ve looked at some pretty easy strategies for getting rid of that bloated stomach.
Make sure you’re pooping…ditch the soda…balance your salt and potassium levels…de-stress yourself.
Well, this one is a bit more involved.
The good news is I’m not going to tell you to swear off every food deemed “unclean.” Just the “special” foods we talked about earlier: dairy and FODMAPs.
As you know, these foods cause bloating for many people, and the first step to seeing if they’re your nemesis is to eliminate them entirely from your diet.
Here’s a handy list of the foods you should stop eating and see how your body responds (and you can find a more extensive list here):
- Grains like wheat, barley, and rye
- Brussels sprout
- Sugar alcohols like xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol
I know…that’s long, frustrating list but remember: it’s only temporary, and even if it works, it doesn’t mean you have to leave the offending foods off your plate for good.
Instead, you can take a food intolerance approach and start introducing them back one by one (“challenges”) while keeping a food diary. You may find that it’s only a handful of foods that trigger the bloating.
Check out this article to learn more.
6. Don’t Waste Your Time With Natural Diuretics
If this isn’t the first article you’ve read on bloating, you’ve undoubtedly come across claims that certain foods and supplements can stop bloating in its tracks and give you the flat, sexy belly that you’ve always wanted.
For example, asparagus, dandelion, celery, leafy greens, hawthorn, bananas, olive oil, horsetail, green tea, parsley, and many, many more.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see any valid scientific proof that any food or plant can reliably reduce bloating.
Sure, potassium-rich foods like bananas, beans, and greens can help if the problem is low potassium intake, but in that case it’s not the food per se that’s helping – it’s the potassium.
Alcohol is known to have diuretic effects but becoming a lush isn’t exactly a viable anti-bloating strategy. Caffeine has mild diuretic effects too, but research shows the fluid ingested with it more than replaces any water lost.
The bottom line is there are no foods or natural supplements that you can eat or take that will noticeably reduce water retention.
You’re going to have to work a bit harder for it.
The Bottom Line on Stomach Bloating
If you’re extremely frustrated with your bloated stomach, I understand. It sucks.
Fortunately, there are simple solutions.
So long as it’s not caused by a legitimate medical condition, all you have to do is…
- Determine if it’s just belly fat or legitimate bloating.
- Eat enough fiber, exercise regularly, and ensure you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet.
- Cut out the carbonated beverages.
- Balance your sodium and potassium intake.
- Don’t overstress your mind or body.
- Reduce your FODMAP intake (if nothing else works).
And you’ll markedly improve, if not eliminate, your symptoms.