First of all, some degree of bloating is normal and natural. Your stomach naturally expands after eating. Think of a handbag. If you start off with an empty handbag, and every few hours keep adding items, by the end of the day your bag will have expanded quite a bit. Our society has an obsession with flat or even concave stomachs, which is really unattainable for most people.
That being said, if you find that you are getting bloated after every meal, then it may be time to look at some lifestyle factors and make some adjustments.
Watch sodium intake
I placed sodium at the top of the list because the majority of North Americans are ingesting way more than the recommended daily allowance, and excess sodium can not only make you bloated but contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. Personally, I love salty foods, but I’m learning to cut back. Many foods that you wouldn’t suspect, such as baked good, ice creams, even “natural” and “health” foods can be loaded with way more sodium than you should be consuming in one serving of food.
Foods to watch out for are canned soups and broths, as well as salad dressings and sauces. I love to eat out, but unfortunately the majority of restaurant food is loaded with salt. If I know I’m going to be eating out, I try to counterbalance it with a home cooked, low sodium dish for my next meal.
Sneaky food intolerances
Things like lactose and gluten can cause discomfort, even if you’ve never had a problem with them before. As we age, we tend to produce less digestive enzymes. This is especially the case with lactose. Humans are the only mammals who continue drinking milk after infancy. However, people generally produce less lactase(the enzyme needed to digest milk products) after age two.
Even healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains can cause gas and bloating for some people. The culprit here is raffinose, a complex carbohydrate which can be difficult for the body to break down. An enzyme called alpha- galactosidase can help to ease the digestion of starchy, fibrous foods.
Also, if you find you still have indigestion after eating these foods, try steaming your veggies. While it’s true that the cooking process does diminish some nutrients in produce, it also breaks down the carbohydrates and sugars in these foods, making them easier to digest.
An elimination diet is your best course of action to find out if you have a food intolerance. Keep a food diary. Write down everything you eat for a week or so. Track how you feel each day in terms of satiety, bloating, and abdominal discomfort. You can even use a measuring tape to record how far your belly distends each day. Look at your food intake and see if there is any correlation between certain foods and body states.
Getting to the core
I find that when I’ve got a strong core to work with, almost all of my daily activities and functions, including my digestion, begin to improve.
It doesn’t mean that you have to start doing a hundred crunches everyday; any activity that engages your core, such as yoga or Pilates, will help. Exercises that specifically target your core, such as sit ups, crunches, and planking, don’t require a lot of time. It’s best to start slow and work your way up, or else you’ll just make your abs sore without gaining strength.
Just the act of moving your body and getting active can help improve digestion. Remember to keep hydrated and be gentle with yourself.
It may seem like common sense, but many of us are so focused on what we’re eating that we overlook how we eat, which can have a profound an effect on how we absorb nutrients and digest our food.
When we scarf our food down, we tend to swallow air, which can contribute to gas and bloating. Also, if food isn’t chewed properly, the digestive system has to work overtime to break everything down.
You don’t need to sit there every meal, painstakingly chewing each bite twenty times. But, if you are a person who tends to wolf down your food, I would challenge you to pick even just one snack per day and make a meditation out of it. Even if it’s just eating an apple. Take the time to smell the apple, feel it, look at it- really take time to see it. Then take your time savouring each bite. If you do an exercise like this consistently, eventually muscle memory will kick in and you’ll find yourself eating more consciously more often.
Look to nature
It may seem simple, but herbs such as fennel, black pepper, ginger and peppermint can ease your tummy, especially after a big meal. Belly Comfort by Traditional Medicinals is an organic, caffiene-free tea which includes many of these herbs. You can also pick up fresh herbs from your local farmer’s market and incorporate them into your meals or smoothies. Dried fennel seeds are an age old remedy for gas and bloating. You can find them at most health food stores. Chew on a few after your biggest meal of the day. They have a mild licorice taste and can easily replace that after-supper candy. Turmeric is also a great savoury spice which can be added to meals, and helps lower inflammation in general.
If low stomach acid is to blame for your tummy troubles, then adding an acidic substance such as apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to the stomach before a meal can help get the digestive juices flowing. A lot of times if we’re suffering from a stomach ache we reach for the antacids, when the problem may actually be a lack of stomach acid rather than an over abundance of it. A way to determine if you have low stomach acid is to simply drink a glass of lemon water, or eat a bitter salad (such as arugula) with some apple cider vinegar and olive oil (to taste) squirted on top. If you notice an improvement in how you feel after your meal, then you most likely have low stomach acid. A naturopath can provide you with a more sophisticated test, and may suggest supplements such as Betaine HCL to help bring your stomach’s PH level back to normal.
Getting in good bacteria
Keeping your gut bacteria in balance is a great way to prevent or minimize bloating, and has a slew of other health benefits. Probiotics, which can be taken as supplements, may also fight inflammation, boost the immune system and even help ease anxiety. Food sources of healthy bacteria include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir.
We all know that stress is bad for the body, but what you may not know is that it can both hinder digestion and lead to an increase in belly fat. This is due to cortisol, the fight or flight hormone that gets released in high amounts during times of worry or stress. There have also been some studies suggesting that high intensity exercises such as running or kickboxing, while great for cardio, can also increase cortisol production. Whether this is true or not, it certainly can’t hurt to balance your exercise routine with some gentle yoga or meditation. Exploring greater depths of relaxation will not just benefit your waistline, but your overall health and wellbeing. So just breath! Make a commitment to making regular forms of relaxation part of your self care ritual.