"Bloating" is the No. 1 complaint I encounter in my clinical practice, and I spend a lot of time trying to match up foods and symptoms in order to hunt down the culprit. Is it digestive intolerance to lactose or fructose? Could it signal celiac disease?
More often than not, however, bloating doesn't signal anything pathological or suggest something nefarious is lurking within. Rather, it's the result of your standard, garden-variety intestinal gas.
Intestinal gas (flatus) is a completely normal phenomenon. It's mostly the result of bacterial fermentation in your gut: When friendly intestinal bacteria digest foods that you can't, they release gasses like hydrogen or methane as a byproduct. Generally, bacteria digest carbohydrate foods – sugars, starches and especially fiber. (If you've ever followed a very low-carb diet, you may have noticed that suddenly, the amount of gas you produced took a nosedive.) The average person produces between half a liter and a liter and a half of flatus daily.
Understanding that a normal amount of gas is an expected side effect of feeding your inner allies helps paint it in a positive light: It means you're nourishing the bacteria living in your gut, who repay the favor by treating you to all sorts of health benefits.
[Read: Tending Your Inner Ecosystem.]
But on crowded commuter trains, first dates or presentations to your boss, even normal intestinal gas can be socially problematic. For people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), even normal amounts of flatus can be extremely uncomfortable; that's because hypersensitivity to even minor distension of the intestinal passageways is a hallmark of this condition. Regardless of your reason, if you're looking to reduce your tendency toward gas without compromising the healthfulness of your diet, here are a few tricks of the trade that may help:
1. Soak or rinse your beans: Beans and legumes – like lentils, chickpeas, black beans and soybeans – contain medium carbohydrate chains called galacto-oligosachharides (GOS) whose bonds cannot be broken by human digestive enzymes. Various types of GOS, such as raffinose and stachyose, arrive to the colon intact and result in a feeding frenzy among your resident bacteria.
[Read: Beans: The Undervalued Superfood.]
GOS, however, are water-soluble. That means when beans soak in water, some of these carbs leach out. For canned beans, tossing the canning liquid and rinsing the beans well before use may help reduce their GOS load. For dry beans and lentils, soaking for a few hours before cooking may have a similar effect. Research suggests that at least 25 percent of GOS are removed when discarding dry beans' soaking water. Therefore, if you cook dry beans or lentils directly in a soup or chili, the gassy carbs will be retained in the final product.
2. Puree your cruciferous veggies: Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are among the most nutritious vegetables one could eat – and research suggests it may be ideal to consume them at least three times per week. Unfortunately, for many, these can be among the gassiest veggies; as a result, they choose to avoid them altogether.
If you love these veggies but find their after-effects too uncomfortable to bear, try them in the form of a cooked and pureed soup or side dish. Pureeing increases the surface area of food particles, increasing contact with your digestive enzymes as the food travels through your GI tract and increasing its absorbability. As a result, there's less residue arriving to the colon to feed your gut bacteria – and less opportunity for flatulence.
3. Bring on the Beano: If you like your broccoli intact, however, there's a plan B: Take an enzyme supplement called alpha-galactosidase – popularly marketed as Beano. Alpha-galactosidase is an enzyme derived from mold (!) that's required to break down the type of fiber found in beans and gassy veggies like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. (Humans don't produce this enzyme ourselves.) Taking a few of these enzyme pills along with your first bites of gassy veggies may help you pre-digest their fiber before your gut bacteria can get to them.
4. Add your own fiber: Most fiber-fortified or reduced-calorie cereals, granolas, energy bars and breads contain a fibers called inulin (aka chicory root extract). Inulin is known as a "prebiotic" fiber: a carbohydrate that arrives largely intact to the colon and stimulates the growth and health-promoting activity of your gut's resident bifidobacteria and lactobacilli populations.
[Read: Is All Fiber Created Equal?]
In other words, prebiotics are, by definition, destined for fermentation. But a little prebiotic fiber goes a long way; a few grams per day is probably sufficient to reap its benefits. Available research suggests that healthy people experience excessive gas in doses ranging from 5 to 10 grams per day of inulin (depending on the type). By way of context, popular high-fiber cereals and bars can contain anywhere from 5 to 14 grams of fiber per serving, the vast majority of which comes from inulin.
Since not all fibers are as rapidly fermentable as prebiotic fiber, you may be more comfortable fortifying your diet with fiber-rich foods of your own choosing. If your fiber-fortified cereal is making you miserable, choose unadulterated bran flakes or cooked oat bran paired with fresh blueberries; add chia seeds to yogurt or smoothies; or sprinkle ground flaxseeds on your steel-cut oatmeal, and have it with raspberries. Similarly, skip the fiber-fortified energy bars in favor of a handful of a high-fiber snack like pistachios and a pear.
If you remain interested in the benefits of prebiotics, but tolerance is an issue, try getting it in the more modest doses that occur naturally in veggies like jicama, asparagus, onion, leeks and garlic rather than from the mega-doses commonly found in processed foods.
5. Fall in love with fennel: If you've ever dined at an Indian restaurant, you may have noticed a small bowl filled with seeds by the cashier – either plain or candy-coated. These are fennel seeds, a natural flatulence-fighter that South Asians have traditionally used to improve digestive tolerance of nutritious staples like beans, lentils and cauliflower. Chewing a pinch of fennel seeds after a gassy meal – or crushing seeds and steeping them in boiling water to make a tea – can help reduce the uncomfortable side effects of veggie-heavy meals.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.