By: Hallie Levine
We've all been there: days when you feel as bloated as the blow-up Shrek in the Macy's parade. Okay, sometimes you know that having that third helping of your sister's peach cobbler wasn't the best idea. But when you're eating right and exercising regularly but still can't zip up your skinny jeans, what gives?
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"One of the main causes of bloat isn't how much you eat; it's eating certain foods that are difficult for your stomach and intestines to digest," explains Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a dietitian in Sarasota, Florida, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "These substances then pass into your colon, where bacteria feed on them, producing the gas bubbles that make your stomach swell up." About 20 percent of adults experience bloating, according to one study from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, but "anecdotally that number is much higher. Most women I see in my practice complain about bloat at one time or another," Dr. Gerbstadt says. "The good news is that with some simple diet and lifestyle changes, you can reverse that bloated feeling, fast." Start with these smart tips, which can help you flatten your belly for good.
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Tip #1: Lace Up
If your waistband feels snug after dinner, head outside for a brisk 10-minute walk. Physical activity helps air bubbles pass through your digestive tract quicker, explains Dr. Gerbstadt, so that bloated feeling will disappear faster than if you lounge on the couch. In fact, one of the worst things you can do on "fat" days is skip your workout: Moderate exercise, like biking for 30 minutes three times a week, significantly improved bloating and other symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome in a new Swedish study.
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Tip #2: Pop a Probiotic
Sometimes bloating can be caused by an imbalance of the bacteria in your intestines, especially if you have been taking antibiotics to treat, say, a urinary tract infection or sinus infection, explains Sita Chokhavatia, MD, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Probiotics can help restore the bacterial balance, but not all brands have proven that they work: Bifidobacterium infantis is the only probiotic strain that studies show relieves GI symptoms, such as bloating, a Northwestern University review found. Dr. Chokhavatia recommends trying a two-week course to see if it helps.
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Tip #3: Divide Your Dairy
More than one in 10 adults are lactose intolerant, and bloat is a common side effect, according to a 2009 Baylor College of Medicine study. But if you suspect that milk, yogurt, and other dairy products are causing your belly bulge, you don't have to worry that you'll miss out on their benefits, namely lots of calcium and protein. Lactose-intolerant people can handle at least 12 grams of lactose (the amount in a cup of milk) with minor or no symptoms, researchers at the National Institutes of Health say. "For people with lactose concerns, I recommend they spread their dairy intake throughout the day -- say, a half cup of milk with their breakfast cereal, and cheese with crackers in the afternoon," says Tara Gidus, RD, a nutritionist in Orlando, Florida. "Choose dairy that comes from yogurt and hard cheeses, such as cheddar and provolone, which are digested more easily." If even small amounts of dairy cause stomach upset, switch to lactose-reduced or lactose-free products.
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Tip #4: Breathe
If you've ever had an urgent need to find a bathroom before a big race or presentation, you're no stranger to the internal effects of stress. "When you're anxious, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that stimulate your digestive system," explains Yuri Saito, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The result: You experience more gas, bloating, and even the runs. Compounding matters, stress causes many people to overeat or eat the "wrong" things, Dr. Saito notes, adding extra fuel to their overstimulated digestive system. If you can't eliminate the stressful circumstance, you may be able to manage it through cognitive behavior therapy or hypnotherapy; these two mind-body techniques are surprisingly effective in treating symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, including bloating, a 2009 Canadian review found. Meditation or simple mindful breathing can also offer some relief. Practice it at home for a few minutes every day: Sit in a quiet space, close your eyes, and inhale through your nose for a count of 10. Focus on breathing deep and sitting tall. Exhale through your mouth in a controlled, purposeful fashion for 10 counts. Repeat 10 times.
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Tip #5: Fine-Tune Your Fiber
A lot of cereals are advertised as being high in fiber, which should be good for your digestive system, right? Not always. Certain products add fiber in the form of chicory root, or inulin, which is harder to digest, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, a wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic Lifestyle 180 program. In fact, people who eat large amounts of inulin (10 grams) at one time end up experiencing more gas and bloating than those who eat less, researchers at the University of Minnesota in Saint Paul found. Your best bet: Get your fiber from fruits and vegetables and whole-grain rice, pasta, and bread rather than from packaged high-fiber products. And check the labels on your favorite cereals, cookies, and granola bars: If they contain chicory fiber, they most likely have inulin.
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