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The battle of the bulge

Wake with a flat(ish) stomach, but look like you’re ‘with child’ come 3pm? Here’s the lowdown on bloating and ways to ease the squeeze

F

ood baby, bell-swell, tummy balloon, puffball midriff – whatever you call it, a survey found that two out of three people experience bloating after meals, some to the point where they go up a whole dress size in one day. (And, frankly, party season is not a time when we want our sartorial options limited.)

 

But it’s not just what bloating makes us look like that drives us bonkers. It can also be painful, not to mention embarrassing (well, there are only so many times or situations when you can blame that, ahem, ‘windy moment’ on the dog).

 

However, not all ‘bloaters’ have the same symptoms. ‘Some people might not even have a visibly bigger tummy, but it still feels stretched. They’re gassy and it can get uncomfortable,’ explains nutritionist and gut health expert Dr Eileen Murphy.

 

Apart from the obvious culprits, such as fatty food, fizzy drinks and overdoing it at the buffet, what else could be causing our bloating epidemic? ‘Put simply, it’s down to what and how you eat,’ says Boots nutritionist Vicky Pennington. ‘But if you think you might have a more serious condition, such as lactose intolerance, coeliac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), head to your GP pronto.’

 

So, from chewing gum to the type of job you have, read on to get informed about some of the surprising things that could be the cause of your tummy troubles.

#HEALTH HACK

To help with trapped wind, try massaging your abdomen in the direction of your gastro-intestinal tract. How? Press near your right hip, slide up towards your ribs, move straight across and then down in a circular motion.

YOU CHEW GUM

Sure, the sugar-free variety helps teeth and fixes bad breath, but it could also be causing your bloat. ‘As about half the gas in the digestive system is due to swallowed air, chewing gum is an obvious culprit because the act of chewing it can allow extra air in,’ explains Vicky. In fact, anything that means you swallow more air – smoking, drinking through straws, sucking on pen lids, even having loose dentures – is a no-no. ‘And, sorry to sound like your mother, but don’t talk when you’re eating – it’s not polite, and you’ll be gulping more air, too,’ adds Vicky.

YOU HAVE A DESK JOB

In a nutshell: if you’re not moving, neither are your bowels! ‘A sedentary lifestyle can lead to sluggish digestion and bloating,’ says Eileen. A quick biology lesson: if the gastrointestinal tract doesn’t move food through efficiently, gas builds up in the intestines, causing bloating and discomfort. Amazingly, a brisk 20-30 minute walk four times a week can help. But remember, it’s normal to look slimmer in the morning than later in the day, as you’re essentially fasting overnight. Want reassurance that you’re not alone? Some successful fitness bloggers (check out Tiffany Brien and Megan Jayne Crabbe) have been posting photos of their flat morning tummy vs their evening puffiness *breathes a sigh of relief*.

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YOUR HEALTHY DIET

Unfortunately, our tummies can be ‘divas’ about certain kinds of food (we’re looking at you, sprouts). Other culprits? ‘Beans, lentils, pulses, cruciferous veg (think: cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli) and even leeks, onions and garlic,’ says Patrick Holford, fellow of the British Association For Nutritional Therapy and author of Improve Your Digestion. But why? Some people may produce insufficient amounts of the enzyme that helps digest these types of food, meaning they sit and ferment in your gut (hello, flatulence). However, cruciferous veg contain lots of healthy fibre, which actually keeps you regular, so cutting them out completely will only backfire (so to speak). ‘You’re likely to become constipated, which will lead to even worse bloating,’ cautions Vicky.
So what to do? ‘Make sure you’re drinking six to eight glasses of water a day – it helps fibre move through the digestive system,’ she says. You could also try eating smaller, more regular meals throughout the day to avoid ‘overloading’ your digestive system all at once.

YOU’VE GONE SUGAR-FREE

You might think you’re opting for a healthier diet, but certain sweeteners called polyols can be the cause of a ‘gas leak’. ‘Some people find sorbitol and xylitol – widely used sweeteners – really difficult to digest, and they can lead to flatulence,’ says Vicky. Watch
out for them in slimming products, sugar-free gum and some fruit juices.

YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH ‘GOOD’ BACTERIA

Years of ads showing bloated women magically transformed by a yoghurt tincture have taught us that not all bacteria are ‘bad’. But what’s the science behind it? ‘The normal human digestive tract contains about 400 types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria,’ says Patrick. ‘My research shows that some people suffer from bloating because they don’t have enough of the “good” bacteria in their gut.’ (It’s thought that probiotics may be helpful, although research is still inconclusive as to their efficacy.) ‘Try gut-friendly food such as yoghurt – make sure it contains lactobacillus acidophilus – as well as the Korean pickle kimchi and sauerkraut (pickled cabbage),’ says Vicky.

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A whopping 9,500,000 women in the UK suffer from symptoms of bloating pain, constipation, diarrhoea and gas.

YOU’RE NOT CHEWIING PROPERLY

As your mouth is where digestion begins, help everything along by chewing the heck out of each bite – softer food needs about  five to 10 chews, while it can be chewed up to 30 times before swallowing if it’s dense (such as meat and veggies). As saliva helps thoroughly break down the food before you swallow it, the more ‘processing’ you do in your mouth, the easier it will be on your digestive tract, resulting in less bloating round your mid-section. Result! ‘I love the whole mindful eating trend – really thinking about what you’re chewing and sitting down for a meal make a huge difference to digestion,’ says Vicky. ‘And don’t watch the TV while you eat, as people tend to munch faster (not to mention more) when they’re distracted.’

#HEALTH HACK

Twisting yoga poses are good for ‘moving things along’. Lie on your back and stretch one arm straight out on the floor. Then slowly bring the opposite knee across your body to rest on the floor (if possible), exhaling as you twist. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

YOUR PERIOD IS ABOUT TO START

‘You might notice that you’re more bloated than usual about a week before your period starts,’ explains Eileen. ‘We don’t actually know why this happens, but there are things you can do to help. Keep a regular eating pattern, limit your intake of fatty food, as well as food high in salt, to help minimise bloating.’ You should also try to drink lots of water, as dehydration can prompt your body to retain more fluid, in the form of bloating. Steer clear of alcohol, coffee, strong tea and other caffeine-rich drinks like cola, too, as they’re diuretics (translation: they make you pee more frequently) – again, encouraging your body to hold on to water.

YOUR PARTY TIPPLE

The alcoholic drink in your hand could be causing your expanding waistband – and not just because of the extra calories it contains. ‘If you bloat after drinking beer, but don’t after champagne, it could be that yeast is the reason for your gut troubles,’ says Patrick. ‘One client told me that she had such bad bloat after a lager, her trousers split!’ There’s a lot of yeast in beer and wine, but little in champagne and neat spirits. As always, drink in moderation (no more than 14 units a week), but why not consider swapping your usual white wine for a glass of champers during the party season? After all, it is nearly Christmas.

Red flag!

Make an appointment to see your GP immediately if you experience any of the following:

A change in bowel activity (that includes constipation, diarrhoea or both).

Any lumps or bumps around your bottom or stomach.

Bleeding from your bottom.

Unexplained weight loss.

New and consistent bloating that has lasted for three weeks should always be checked in women over 45 to rule out ovarian cancer.

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†Improve Your Digestion, Patrick Holford (Piatkus), available from patrickholford.com
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Photography Getty Images, Yasu + Junko/Trunk Archive

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