Bloating, which is a sense of feeling gassy or distended, is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints. This symptom may occur after eating, and is often linked to consuming large amounts, swallowing air, or eating foods that are either gas forming or incompletely digested. Countering the symptom can be a challenge, as bloating can also be related to an underlying medical condition. If you experience bloating after eating, and changes to your diet do not improve symptoms, see your doctor for evaluation and treatment.
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Overeating can stretch your stomach beyond its normal capacity, causing your upper abdomen to feel full and distended. Since fat digestion is slow compared to other nutrients, eating a high fat meal can further aggravate your symptoms, causing your stomach to feel full for a longer period of time. Another common cause of bloating is swallowed air, typically caused by eating too quickly, drinking carbonated beverages, drinking through a straw, or chewing gum. This swallowed air causes the stomach to enlarge, creating discomfort until burping or intestinal gas relieve these symptoms.
Bloating can also be linked to the intestinal fermentation of certain carbohydrates, such as beans, whole grains and certain fruits and vegetables, and the gas your gut bacteria makes from these foods. This fermentation in the gut also causes more fluid to be pulled into the intestines, leading to gas, bloating, cramping and diarrhea. While these symptoms tend to be located in the lower intestines, they can also be felt in the stomach area. This intolerance to certain carbohydrates is dose-related, and tends to occur in people with sensitive guts, or in those with abnormal gut motility -- when the muscles and nerves of the gastrointestinal tract do not function normally. Incompletely digested carbohydrates also cause bloating, as the gut bacteria produce more gas as they feast on these poorly digested sugars. Common culprits include sugar alcohols, found in no-sugar-added foods and some fruits and vegetables, and milk products in people who have lactose intolerance, a deficiency of the enzyme which digests the natural sugar found in milk.
In affected people, consuming foods that contain the protein gluten can lead to intestinal bloating, and this sense of distension can extend to the stomach area. Celiac disease is a condition in which contact with gluten causes damage to the intestinal lining, leading to the impaired absorption of certain foods and nutrients -- and symptoms which may include bloating. Some people without celiac disease have an intolerance to gluten, and this can also lead to gastrointestinal side effects -- including bloating. Foods sources of gluten include wheat, barley or rye, and any foods that contain these items as ingredients or contaminants.
Bloating can also be a side effect of any condition that impacts food digestion or alters the transit of ingested food through the gastrointestinal system. For example, bloating is one of the common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and can also be related to heartburn, constipation or a stomach ulcer. Bloating is also a symptom of gastroparesis, a condition caused by nerve damage which impairs the normal contractions of the stomach, and leads to slow stomach emptying. Persistent stomach or abdominal bloating may also be a sign of certain cancers, including ovarian or colon cancer, so bloating that lasts for more than a few weeks should be evaluated.
If you experience bloating after you eat, try changing your diet to reduce portions, limit fat intake and reduce the swallowing of air. Persistent bloating should be evaluated by your doctor, so the cause and a treatment plan can be determined. If the cause is thought to be due to carbohydrate intolerance, celiac disease or impaired digestion, ask for a referral to a dietitian who specializes in gastrointestinal disorders, to help identify the specific foods that cause your symptoms, and to create a plan which ensures optimal nutrition and symptom relief.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD