Foods That Can Trigger Bloating

We've all experienced that uncomfortable, puffy feeling that sometimes happens after eating. Perhaps we ate too fast, we ate too much, or we ate something difficult to digest, causing gas or swelling in the digestive system. Bloating and gas are very common, and while usually not a serious problem, they can make you uncomfortable.

How we digest different foods may vary from person to person, but some foods are more notorious than others for triggering digestive issues. These foods aren't all bad -- in fact, many of them are very good for you -- but they may contain elements that are more complicated to digest. Here are some of the most common culprits that can lead to bloating, and what you can do to reduce discomfort.

1. Legumes  

Beans and lentils are a healthy addition to your diet. They are full of nutrients, protein, and carbs, and low in fat. However, they are also well known for causing gas and bloating. The most likely trigger for this is raffinose, a type of undigestible sugar that's commonly found in legumes. 

Raffinose belongs to a group of sugars called alpha-galactosides. Humans lack the digestive enzyme that breaks down these sugars, called alpha-galactosidase. Therefore, these sugars bypass the digestive system and travel to gut, where they are fermented by our gut bacteria. The fermentation process creates gas as a byproduct.

This isn't actually a bad thing, since it helps feed our friendly gut bacteria, which is important for maintaining a healthy gut. However, for those with gut health issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it can cause great discomfort. 

For most of us, legumes can be a manageable part of our diet, as long we don't eat too much at once. You can reduce the amount of undgestible sugars by soaking or sprouting beans and lentils before cooking them. You can also try Beano or a digestive enzyme blend that includes alpha-galactosidase to help break down the sugars.

2. Dairy Products  

One of the most common causes for bloating and digestive discomfort is a sensitivity to lactose, a sugar found in milk. As much as 65% of the world population is thought to be lactose intolerant, or deficienct in lactase, the digestive enzyme that helps break down lactose. This can make any kind of dairy product harder to digest.

Lactose sensitivity varies from person to person. Some people find that they can tolerate dairy in small amounts, or can handle aged or fermented milk products, such as hard cheeses and yogurt. Others feel better if they avoid dairy entirely. You may want to experiment to find what works for you.  

Luckily, there are a wide variety of plant-based milk alternatives available that don't contain lactose. The enzyme lactase can also be taken as a digestive aid, either individually (Lactaid) or as part of a full-spectrum digestive enzyme blend. If you aren't eating any dairy,  make sure you are getting enough calcium from other sources.

3. Cruciferous Vegetables  

Cruciferous vegetables such as brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower are some of the most nutrious foods on the planet. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, as well as unique sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates, which are thought to help protect cells and DNA from damage.

However, their high fiber content can make these veggies tough to digest, especially if they are raw or undercooked. Cruciferous veggies are also high in raffinose, a common gas trigger. But these veggies have so many health benefits, it would be a shame to eliminate from your diet entirely, unless they are causing serious discomfort.

You can help your digestive system adjust to cruciferous veggies by introducing them into your diet slowly, starting with small amounts and gradually increasing them. Digestive enzymes can also help break them down more comfortably.

4. Wheat, Barley & Rye  

Whole grains such as barley, rye, and wheat are a healthy addition to your diet because they are rich in fiber and nutrients. However, the high fiber content can overwhelm your digestive system and cause you to feel bloated, particularly if you eat too much. If you aren't used to eating whole grains, it's best to introduce them to your diet gradually to allow your digestive system to adjust.

These grains also contain gluten, a protein that some people are sensitive to. The most severe form of gluten intolerance is celiac disease, an allergic reaction to gluten which causes the immune system to attack the gut wall. However, this type of intolerance is relatively uncommon.

People who do not have celiac disease may still experience a sensitivity to wheat or gluten that causes gastrointestinal discomfort. It's unclear exactly what causes this. Some research suggests it may not be the gluten at all, but a sensitivity to FODMAPs (fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols). These are a type of carbs and fiber that are resistant to digestion and are instead fermented in the gut, producing gas.

If you are sensitive to grains that contain gluten and FODMAPS, try swapping them out with other whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, oats, or buckwheat. Wheat flour can also be replaced with almond or coconut flour.

5. Beer  

It's common to feel bloated or have to burp after drinking beer. There are two different reasons for this. One is simply the carbonation, which comes from carbon dioxide, a gas. Essentially, whenever you drink beer, soda, or other carbonated drinks, you are ingesting air.

But beer is also made from grains that contain fermentable carbs, like barley, maize, wheat, and rice. These carbs are fermented in the gut by your friendly gut bacteria, producing more gas. Some of the grains and yeast used to brew beer also contain gluten, another common trigger for digestive discomfort.

Luckily, beer is a recreational drink, so your body won't miss it if you cut back. You can also try swapping it out for red wine or distilled spirits, which are uncarbonated and are generally gluten free.

6. Fried & Fatty Foods

Fried and fatty foods can be taxing for the digestive system, often triggering discomfort. Fat takes longer to digest than other foods and requires several enzymes, as well as bile from the liver, to break it down for absorption. If your liver is taxed or your digestion is sluggish, you'll have more trouble with fatty foods. 

Go easy on these foods. Healthy fats like avocados, nuts, coconut oil, and fish are good for you and should make up a regular part of your diet. But processed fats and fried foods have little nutritional value and should only be occasional indulgences. A digestive enzyme blend with lipase can help break down fats. If you find that fatty foods often cause you trouble, you may want to give your liver a break by cutting back on alcohol.

7. Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol are often used to sweeten sugar-free treats and processed foods. Unfortunately, they don't digest easily, so they often travel unprocessed to the gut, where they are fermented by your gut bacteria, creating gas and bloating. They can also have a laxative effect, as they pass through you unabsorbed.

If you're looking for a low calorie sugar alternative, stevia is considered a healthier option. It's plant-based, carb-free, and much sweeter than sugar, so you don't need to use as much. It's still important to use sugar substitutes in moderation, however. It is thought that their intense sweetness may desensitize you to the taste of sugar, prompting you to consume more sweet things.

Managing Bloat and Gas

Occasional gas and bloating is normal and usually no cause for concern. You can reduce it by cutting back on the foods above and by taking digestive enzymes with your meals to help break down tough foods. Support your  digestive health by making sure to drink enough water, eat enough fiber, and get enough exercise to keep things moving. Probiotics can also help support a healthy gut microbiome, which is important for healthy digestion.

If you frequently find yourself struggling with gas and bloat, it's time to take a closer look at your diet. Start a food diary to keep track of what you eat and which foods cause discomfort. Experiment with eliminating foods one by one until you find the trouble makers. Back off those foods for a while until your digestion returns to normal, then reintroduce them gradually, allowing your digestive system time to adjust. If the reintroduction doesn't go well, you may have a food sensitivity that requires a more permanent dietary change.

If dietary changes don't help your digestion, talk to your doctor. You may have an underlying digestive health problem, such as IBS, bacterial overgrowth, celiac disease, or some other issue that needs attention. 

References:

1. Bjarandottir, Adda, MS, RDN. 13 Foods That Cause Bloating (and What to Eat Instead). Healthline, Updated Oct. 2022.

Jaret, Peter. Sensitive Stomachs: Secrets to Gas Control. WebMD, Reviewed Feb. 2022.