The Sources and Science Behind Bloating
Happy Monday. In the midst of this week’s current events, there are far bigger problems that require our attention than nutrition, but since this was written in advance I have decided to continue with the regular schedule and post today’s article anyways. However, I want to stress that everyone has a role to play in fighting today’s racism and I encourage you to get involved is as many ways possible. Whether you donate, educate yourself through books/podcasts/documentaries, or even just start healthy conversations, your actions are both needed and necessary.
"Every time you eat it's a chance to nourish your body" - Anonymous
We often joke about developing a so-called food baby and having to unbutton our pants after a meal. Everyone is familiar with the uncomfortable feelings of their stomach expanding due to unwanted bloating, and we all know that the most obvious feelings of these aches are caused by overeating. But beyond the great big Thanksgiving feast, we can experience bloating and gas after everyday meals and normal portion sizes. This is because there is another cause of bloating that most people don’t know about: eating large amounts of foods high in FODMAPs, a type of carbohydrate that our bodies cannot naturally digest. If you are not aware of specific foods that are famous for bloating, then you risk crediting all food to these unwanted symptoms/swelling, which is not the case. Hopefully by reading this article you can understand hidden causes of bloating you might not have known before, and you can be mindful when to include these in your diet and when to avoid.
In plain and simple terms, bloating is just our body’s reaction to excess air bubbles and gas in our gastrointestinal systems. We naturally experience some swelling while waiting for complete digestion, especially if we eat a lot of food in a short amount of time. But as I mentioned before, when we eat foods containing FODMAPS, our bodies naturally have a harder time breaking down these foods and this often results in excess air bubbles and gas.
“I’m sorry FOD-what??”
The phrase FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols.” Good luck remembering that one. In plain English, FODMAPs are a type of carbohydrate that our body cannot naturally break down, so they travel to our small intestine and are handled by our guts. In order to break down these foods, the bacteria in our guts release hydrogen gas as a byproduct. And thus, that’s where the bloating and digestive symptoms come from.
Before discussing which foods are high in FODMAPS, I want to make clear that these are not “bad” foods. Most of them are actually very important for our nutrition, guts, and overall health. The reason for discussing these foods is not to say these are foods you need to cut out of your diet, but instead to help you understand cause and effect of unwanted bloating, gas, or GI symptoms.
Foods containing FODMAPs (aka the chemical makeup including carbs we can't break down) are found just about everywhere – from wheat in breads to some fruits and vegetables to the lactose sugar found in dairy. The good news is that there are 5 main categories of FODMAPs - fructose, galactans, lactose, fructans and polyols - and it is unlikely to experience symptoms from all types. Most people are actually totally fine digesting all foods containing FODMAPs, and if you are intolerant, it is likely just to one or two groups. Of course, everyone is different and you might want to do some trial and error to determine if you are affected. An important confounding variable with all of this is the state of our gut health, so taking a high-quality probiotic may help reduce any indigestion associated with these foods.
Let’s talk through the five categories of FODMAPs and where you can find these carbohydrates. The examples of given below in each category tend to be the most popular, but the list goes on, so I encourage you to do some further research of your own if interested.
To begin, the first category of FODMAPs is called fructose and is often found in some fruits and vegetables. The most common examples are onions, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, apples, garlic, artichoke, or mushrooms. For some reason, onions are particularly high in fructose, which is probably why many people claim to experience burping and gas after eating them.
Next, galactans are mostly present in legumes, with the highest volumes in kidney beans or split peas. Beans/legumes are great sources of both protein and fiber, so these are not necessarily foods you want to eliminate from your diet, just be mindful of when and where you indulge.
The third category - lactose - is one that most have heard of, due to people who are lactose-intolerant. Now you know that what people actually mean when they say they are lactose-intolerant (whether they even know this or not); this just means that they are unable to digest the particular FODMAP found in dairy, which is lactose. The common symptoms of lactose-intolerance are bloating, gas, diarrhea and stomaches, aka the symptoms of diets high in unwanted FODMAPs (it's all connecting now). The foods that are highest in lactose are milk, ice cream, soft cheeses and some yogurts. Most hard cheeses (think: parmesan or sharp cheddar) are actually really low in lactose, so people who are lactose-intolerant don’t necessarily need to cut out dairy altogether, but instead be conscious of which sources of dairy they eat.
Moving on, fructans are found in wheat, rye and a lot of bread products. Let me say this one loud and clear – most people who claim to be “gluten intolerant” due to feelings of bloating and gas are actually just intolerant to fructans (aka this particular type of FODMAPs). Since wheat, which is high in fructans, tends to be the most common grain used in breads these days, people who experience unwanted bloating after eating bread products can easily jump to the conclusion that they need to cut out gluten. If you are able to handle cross contamination with gluten, then you may NOT be gluten intolerant and are probably fructan (type of FODMAP) intolerant. This is incredibly important because by following the trend of gluten intolerance when you actually are not, you are hurting everyone who has celiac, especially when it comes to the seriousness of cross contamination. So going forward, if you are commonly experiencing symptoms of bloating due to eating breads, look further into fructans and avoid immediately blaming gluten. In fact, there is lots of research that eating a gluten free diet for those who do not require it can actually be the opposite of beneficial. Just food for thought!
And finally, the last popular category of FODMAPs are polyols which can be found in lots of sweeteners, particularly corn syrup, honey, and artificial sweeteners. In general, high fructose corn syrup is something you probably want to avoid because it actually interferes with our brain’s natural signaling. Our brains has two main chemicals related to our feelings of fullness - one tells us we are hungry and one tells us we are full. Fun fact: high fructose corn syrup actually suppresses the chemical telling us we are full and enhances the chemical telling us we are hungry, which is why we eat way more than intended. So this is the science behind the idea that you can never just eat one Oreo and other packaged sweets!
That was a lot of science, but I hope this all helps you have a firmer grasp on the sources of bloating, gas, or GI symptoms you may experience. Without this knowledge, it is easy to put the blame on all food, thus manifesting in the ideas of not eating before putting on a dress or tight clothes. This idea is only hurtful for the mindset and conversation surrounding food with your peers, along with your body’s internal metabolism systems. So next time you are about to go for a night out, just adjust your diet to avoid unwanted symptoms!
My final piece of advice is to resist completely cutting out any of these foods high in FODMAPs unless you absolutely need to. If you allow yourself exposure to these foods on occasion, you can allow your gut to build up a tolerance to these foods, as opposed to fully avoiding and having horrible symptoms when you do come across them. As a general rule, the greater the diversity of your food, the better your gut health, and thus the better your GI health. And be sure to share your new knowledge with your friends and family, especially relating to lactose and gluten intolerances – you will both impress your peers and make a difference in how we talk about food intolerances/allergies! See you in two weeks.
To learn more about FODMAPS and IBS, I highly recommend learning from Monash University. This is where I originally gained most of my understanding surrounding FODMAPS roughly a year ago, and this knowledge has made a difference in my life. All of their information is backed by science, which is important when seeking the truth behind nutrition.