It doesn't matter how many pounds you lose, if you're sporting a bloated stomach your skinny jeans will never fit right.
About one in five people regularly suffer from bloating and not only is a swollen stomach unsightly and uncomfortable, but it can also be a symptom of bigger body issues. Your belly is a barometer of your overall health, and everything from your diet to your moods can affect your digestion, gas production, and, ultimately, whether or not you feel like you're about to bust a gut.
Luckily, once you ID the cause of your ballooning middle, deflating it is easy. Here are eight common culprits, plus simple strategies to beat the bloat.
1. Belly Bloater: Wheat
Don't have celiac disease or gluten insensitivity? Wheat could still be bloating your belly, says William Davis, M.D., author of the Wheat Belly 30-Minute (or Less!) Cookbook. That's because it contains potentially harmful proteins other than gluten, such as gliadin, alutenin, and agglutinin, which can increase inflammation and alter your gut's delicate balance of bacteria, trigger bloating, gas, and even diarrhea.
Deflate: Try removing wheat from your diet for about a month and see if your midsection decompresses, Davis suggests. Remember, though, that wheat isn't just in breads and pastas. Processed foods like candies, seasonings, canned soup, and dried mixes are common sources as well, so be sure to pay attention to nutrition labels.
2. Belly Bloater: Sodium
If you've just finished a particularly salty meal--hello, taco night!--and your fingers are swelling like sausages, chances are your intestines are, too, says dietician Nicolette M. Pace, R.D., founder of NutriSource nutrition practice in Great Neck, New York. "Sodium molecules attract water and cause tissues to hydrate, so too much can cause water retention." And chances are you're getting too much of the salty stuff. In fact, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American gets more than twice the recommended amount.
Deflate: While ditching the saltshaker will certainly help, forgoing processed foods is an even smarter move. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 75 percent of the average American's sodium intake comes from commercially prepared foods like breads and packaged snacks.
3. Belly Bloater: Sugar Substitutes
Skipping sugar is good, but not when you replace it with sugar alcohols. Primarily found in sugar-free food varieties including ice cream, candy, and gum, they're difficult to digest and can ferment in your gut, causing bloating, gas, cramps, and diarrhea, says Pace. The Food and Drug Administration even requires products that are high in sorbitol, a common sugar alcohol, to state on their label that they "may have a laxative effect." Meanwhile, mannitol can actually be purchased in your pharmacy as a laxative.
Deflate: If you find yourself reaching for "sugar-free" and "no sugar added" foods, check their labels for erythritol, glycerol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol--basically anything with "-tol" at the end. And while you're at it, swear off gum, sugarless and sugar-packed alike. (More on that next.)
4. Belly Bloater: Air
Yes, you really can swallow air. We do it every day, some of us more than others. Gum chewers, soda drinkers, smokers, and people who talk with their mouths full all have an increased chance of filling their middles with too much air, according to Pandolfino. Once in your belly, air travels through your digestive system in pockets, literally inflating your gut.
Deflate: Besides kicking the aforementioned habits, ordering a straw with your drink can also help scale back the amount of air that sneaks its way through your mouth. Bonus for the ladies: It'll also keep you from messing up your lipstick.
5. Belly Bloater: Stress
As if stress weren't, well, stressful enough, it's also a triple threat for your tummy, Pandolfino says. First, it makes you more likely to reach for unhealthy foods--and inhale them (along with air, most likely) in record time. Second, it heightens the sensitivity of the GI tract to spur stomachaches. And third, it causes the diaphragm to squeeze down on your abdominal cavity to literally push out your gut.
Deflate: Oddly enough, big belly breaths (like from yoga class) can help get the air out of your stomach. Relaxation therapy, which relies heavily on deep breathing techniques, was found in one University of Sydney study to be an effective form of bloating prevention and treatment. When you breathe slowly and deeply, the brain signals the body's adrenal glands to cut back on their release of stress hormones, calming your nervous system and digestive system alike, he says.
6. Belly Bloater: Dairy
Milk does the body good--well, some bodies. We all naturally produce varying amounts of an enzyme called lactase that's needed to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy, Pace says. Some people don't produce much of it, while others don't produce any, and without enough of the enzyme, lactose ferments in the intestines, creating a buildup of gas that leads a loosening of the belt.
Deflate: Try easing up on dairy products, but you might not need to swear them off altogether. Research suggests that many lactose-intolerant people can process up to 12 grams of lactose (the amount in a cup of milk) without problems. Plus, yogurt and fermented dairy products with probiotics, like kefir, regulate the digestive system and may help flatten your belly, says Pace.
7. Belly Bloater: Dehydration
When your tank hits E, your body (which is about 60 percent water, according to the Journal of Biological Chemistry!) goes into panic mode, storing water between and within cells and causing all-over swelling, Pace says. And if that didn't make you feel plump enough, the process sucks water away from your digestive system, which relies on water to clear waste and bacteria buildup in the intestines. Without water, that bacteria just keeps making more belly-protruding gas.
Deflate: Forget the whole "eight glasses a day" recommendation, says Stacy Sims, Ph.D., a hydration researcher at Stanford University. How much you really need depends on your health, exercise habits, and even the weather. As long as your urine is pale or transparent, you're probably in the clear.
8. Belly Bloater: Fiber
We've all been told to increase our fiber intakes, but it turns out, eating too much can be uncomfortable--and smelly. (Think: beans, the magical fruit.) A 2012 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found that when people who suffered from digestive distress reduced their fiber intake, they also reduced their bloating by 69.7 percent. Why? Unlike your intestines, bacteria in your colon can digest fiber to a small extent, producing gas as a byproduct. What's more, since fiber slows digestion, it can let those bacteria and gases build up for what probably feels like forever.
Deflate: Women still need 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day, according to the Institute of Medicine, but to up your fiber intake without increasing gas, do so slowly over a matter of weeks, and pair it with extra fluids. The liquid will help keep things moving along, preventing another stomach-swelling source: constipation.