What causes bloating and how can I reduce it?

What are the best remedies for a bloated stomach, how can lifestyle changes help, and what causes bloating in the first place? Our nutritionist explains.

A woman holding her stomach

We’re all familiar with that uncomfortable, bloated feeling and some of us are well aware of the cause – overdoing it over the festive season or after a full on blowout at the weekend. For others, bloating is a more than an occasional annoyance. Research suggests that 10-25% of healthy people experience frequent, uncomfortable and, in some cases, painful bloating – and it's more common in women than men.

Pin-pointing your exact triggers and knowing how to resolve the problem can prove complex. First, be clear about your symptoms – if you are experiencing bloating you’ll be feeling pressure in the abdomen with or without any sizeable change in your tummy or waistline. Some sufferers experience symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, indigestion or even premenstrual syndrome. Be clear what your symptoms are and be aware of how frequently you experience them – keeping a symptom diary can be invaluable.

What causes a bloated stomach?

When our stomach is empty, it is about the size of a clenched fist. However, the design and structure of the stomach allows it to increase in shape and size to accommodate what we eat. That said, it's worth bearing in mind that your stomach can only handle about a litre to a litre and a half of food at any one time. Overeating can put strain on your stomach and compromise your digestion.

1. Food and lifestyle factors

Our lifestyles and dietary choices will influence our gut and how it functions and feels. Inactivity, being over-weight, weak abdominal muscles and even psychological issues, including stress, can influence how effectively our digestion processes the food we eat. For some, certain foods can trigger symptoms – artificial sweetners, dairy, some starchy foods and even certain vegetables can potentially be triggers. If this sounds familiar, keep a food diary and record the food you eat and your corresponding symptoms – be prepared to discuss this with a medical professional before making any changes to the foods you eat. Do not eliminate food groups without professional guidance.

A food diary with fruit and vegetables

2. Constipation 

Constipation is a common problem, affecting approximately one in seven people, and is especially common among young women and the elderly. Lack of exercise, a diet low in fibre and fluids, a change to dietary routine, pregnancy, hormonal changes and stress all play a part. Simple changes to your diet and lifestyle including increasing your fibre intake, as long as you stick to it consistently, may lead to significant improvements.
 
3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

One of the most common causes of bloating, IBS affects one in five people at some stage in their lives. Symptoms include changes to bowel habits, cramping, bloating and distension as well as excess gas. Treatment varies but dietary changes, the addition of probiotic and prebiotic foods, exercise and stress management may be effective.

Eating smaller, more frequent meals, limiting fatty, processed foods, spices and alcohol can be helpful. Some IBS sufferers find certain carbohydrates (fermentable carbs and polyols) more difficult to digest and for these people following a supervised low FODMAP diet, under the watchful eye of a trained dietitian may, for some sufferers, be effective.

4. Food intolerances 

An intolerance or sensitivity to a food occurs when our digestive system struggles to fully break down a food. A common example is lactose, the sugar naturally found in milk (one of the FODMAPs). This can be difficult for some people to digest because they lack the digestive enzyme, lactase, which we need to break down and absorb lactose. Any undigested lactose may be fermented in the gut by bacteria and this may cause bloating, abdominal cramps and possibly diarrhoea. 

Older people and those from certain ethnic groups are more likely to be lactose intolerant although a stomach bug may also, temporarily, reduce the production of lactase. If you suspect this is a problem consult your GP, who will be able to correctly diagnose whether this is an issue for you.

A slice of bread with a 'caution' sign

5. Coeliac disease

Gluten, the protein in certain grains including wheat, rye and barley triggers an auto-immune reaction in those people with coeliac disease. This immune reaction leads to the damage of the intestinal wall and reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. As a consequence people with coeliac disease may experience nausea, stomach pains and bloating and will more than likely be lacking in certain nutrients, such as iron and calcium.
 
If you suspect this may be a problem, visit your GP, but don't change your diet until you have been assessed and received a positive diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease a strict gluten-free diet will encourage the recovery of your gut wall – this should minimise bloating and, over time, resolve the symptoms you are experiencing.

Grains which may safely be eaten include rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and sorghum. Visit our gluten free recipe collection for more ideas.

How to get rid of bloating

The solution to resolve your bloating will depend on the cause and potential triggers. For some sufferers smaller, more frequent meals excluding known food culprits may be enough, while for others, adding probiotic (yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh) and prebiotic foods (asparagus, chicory, onion, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes) may help ease symptoms.

Those with IBS systems may find relief from the use of peppermint oil. This natural oil relieves muscle spasms and some studies have shown it to be a useful strategy to relieve bloating.

Another natural option is to make ginger an ingredient of choice because of its anti-sickness, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.

When should you see your doctor?

If your symptoms persist, get worse over time or are accompanied by weight loss, nausea, abdominal pain or changes in bowel habits, consult your GP. This is important because bloating may be a symptom of a more serious problem, including ovarian cancer.

Recipe suggestions

For low FODMAP recipes try our recipe collection.

Overnight oats

This recipe supplies resistant starch which acts as a soluble, fermentable fibre which feeds beneficial gut bacteria.

Jars of overnight oats with fresh fruit and honey

Butternut and cinnamon oats

This recipe supplies resistant starch (in the oats) and soluble fibre in both the oats and butternut squash, along with beta-carotene for healthy intestinal membranes.

Homemade muesli

This breakfast choice is rich in fibre, combined with probiotic yogurt.

A bowl of homemade muesli with fruit and yogurt

Ginger chicken

Enjoy calming and anti-inflammatory ingredients including ginger and turmeric, along with prebiotic vegetables including onion.

Salmon & ginger fish cakes

Try this dinner dish with calming ingredients including ginger, anti-inflammatory (omega-3) salmon and beta-carotene and fibre-rich sweet potatoes.

Mint tea in a pot

Mint tea

Classic fresh mint tea may ease and calm digestion.

Salmon with fennel and tomatoes

Enjoy anti-inflammatory (omega-3) salmon and fennel which is thought to help relieve bloating.

Lemon rubbed salmon (tarragon)

This dish contains omega-3 from salmon, which is anti-inflammatory, tarragon for easing digestive issues and lemon for stimulating gastric juices to aid digestion.

Coriander cod with carrot pilaf

Cumin aids digestion, white fish is a lean protein considered to be easy to digest, while coriander supports appetite and digestion. This dish contains prebiotic vegetables (such as onion), too.

Aubergine pilau with yogurt sauce

Aubergine pilau

Anti-inflammatory ginger, mint and cumin, are present in this vegetarian dish, along with fibre from wholegrain rice and vegetables and probiotic yogurt.

Griddled aubergines with yogurt and mint

This dish contains digestive supportive mint and probiotic yogurt.

Roasted asparagus with lemon

Roasted asparagus

Asparagus is a prebiotic vegetable supplying inulin for beneficial gut bacteria health.

Leafy salsa verde yogurt 

This flavour-packed dip contains digestive supportive mint and basil as well as probiotic yogurt.

Coriander mint raita

Enjoy a combination of digestive supportive herbs in this side dish.

Cucumber mint relish

This recipe contains digestive supportive mint, ginger and probiotic yogurt.

Fruit & seed yogurt

Combine probiotic yogurt, fibre from kiwi, and cinnamon which has been linked with relieving nausea and stomach cramping.

Berry yogurt pots with fruit

Berry yogurt pots

Enjoy probiotic yogurt, antioxidants and mint to ease digestion.


This article was last reviewed on 19th December 2018 by nutritionist Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
 

Comments, questions and tips

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ghokarrhnp
1st Jan, 2015
Changing a few foods in your diet can help solve bloating and eating lighter foods on occasion http://cleanseinsidenout.com has a lot of information and tasty recipes on this very topic
modettelola
23rd Nov, 2014
I had intolerance tests after 10+ years of persistent and painful bloating. Found out I'm intolerant to yeast, sugar and mushrooms. Also taking digestive enzymes. Making everything from scratch is tough I'll admit (sugar is in everything!), but I'm seeing massive results already, and it's only been two weeks.
jadarby
23rd Apr, 2014
I am going through a lengthy and uncomfortable process of investigations for stomach problems. So far with little success so I am keeping a very close eye on suggestions and advice on these pages. Often advice from doctors is very conflicting so any help I can get here is welcome.
rachael--h
22nd Jun, 2013
This advice doesn't offer much to those with already healthy diets ans eating habits. It's also not advisable to simply cut staple foods like potatoes and onions out your diet without considering alternatives. The information providedhere is rather basic and could have been written by someone with no qualifications. Roll on, 15 patients a week. ..
lindenfaerie
3rd Jul, 2013
I visited an osteopath earlier this year to hopefully sort out neck and head pains. He took a full medical history and on hearing I've also suffered with bloating and indigestion most of my life, suggested I try taking Digestive Enzymes before each meal. He is also a herbalist so decided to give it a try. Within a few days of taking the enzymes the bloating and indigestion had disappeared! I can now eat so many different foods with no awful effects! Head and neck pains also reducing.
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robbo1
12th Nov, 2014
I would advise anyone who is having stomach problems to ask their doctor to check for Coeliac disease, (which is an auto immune disease) symptoms include:- bloating, unexplained weight gain or loss, constipation and or loose motions, and bloating after eating bread, cakes, pasta, or anything that includes wheat. But whatever you do, do not omit these foods until you have been thoroughly checked for the disease.