Maybe you’re embarrassed. Maybe you’ve been too polite to ask me. Whatever the reason, know that you’re not alone.
The number of questions I get from people about bloating, gas and other digestive problems is not small, and since it is a sensitive subject I’m sure the questions I get represent just a fraction of those of you with concerns.
It’s not uncommon to experience digestive discomfort when you change your diet. For one thing, any drastic change in eating can be a shock to your system, even if it’s for the better. Also vegetables, legumes and other healthy foods contain a number of nutrients such as oligosaccharides, soluble fiber and natural sugars like fructose that can produce excess gas in the intestine.
Fortunately there are several things that can help prevent the embarrassment and discomfort that can be caused by eating these foods. However it is important to remember that everyone’s digestive environment is unique and different things will work for different people. This means you’ll need to experiment with the following tactics in order to identify what works best for you.
How To Prevent Gas and Digestive Problems
1. Chew thoroughly
When food reaches your intestine that has been only partially digested the bacteria in your gut cause the food to ferment, producing a substantial amount of (smelly) gas. More chewing helps your stomach acids do their job more effectively and can dramatically reduce the bacterial gas that gets formed.
Chewing is even more important when you’re eating vegetables and high-fiber foods, because they are more difficult to breakdown in your mouth and stomach than, say, a slice of Wonder Bread. This means you need to grow accustomed to chewing each bite of food more than you did for processed foods.
2. Take smaller bites
For the same reason it is important to chew, taking smaller bites can help ensure that large chunks of food do not reach your intestine undigested. People who take smaller bites also tend to eat slowly, which helps prevent overeating—another cause of poor digestion.
3. Don’t get too full
Overloading your stomach will eventually overload your gut, which can prevent proper digestion and cause discomfort. Both chewing and taking smaller bites can help with this, but there are many tricks you can use to eat less without noticing if this is a problem for you.
4. Eat balanced meals
On a similar note, you don’t want to overload your gut with one kind of food. If all you’re eating is a giant mound of vegetables for dinner and you’re having trouble digesting it, try balancing out your meal with more protein and fat. These will enable you to feel satisfied with a smaller volume of food (remember point #3), as well as decrease the load of any one nutrient that may be causing problems.
5. Increase vegetable and fiber intake gradually
Going from fast food every day to lots of vegetables can be shocking to your system. The bacterial environment in your gut is accustomed to a certain flow of nutrients, and drastically changing this can cause gas and bloating. Your gut can acclimate to a new diet over time, and the key to avoiding discomfort is to make changes gradually. If you’re really struggling with all that broccoli, cut back a little and see if it helps. Once you’re comfortable you can try adding more if you like.
6. Experiment with probiotics
Most of the gas in your intestine is produced by bacteria, but there are also strains of bacteria that have the opposite effect. Adding probiotic foods to your diet can help populate your gut with helpful bacteria that can ease digestion and reduce gas. There are several strains of probiotic bacteria, and research suggests that different strains work better for different people. Experiment with different kinds, and when you find one that works stick with it to maintain the benefits.
Examples of probiotic foods are yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and miso. Keep in mind that when you cook these foods you will kill some of the active bacteria, so try to eat them raw whenever possible. I did an entire Summer Tomato Live episode on probiotics if you’d like to learn more.
7. Soak your beans
Beans are infamous for producing excess intestinal gas, but proper preparation can mitigate this problem. Instead of buying canned beans, get dry beans and soak them for at least six hours before cooking them. Soaking beans and discarding the soaking water eliminates the majority of the oligosaccharides that cannot be digested, reducing bacterial fermentation and intestinal gas. If you do buy canned beans rinse them thoroughly, since most of the oligosaccharides will be in the canning liquid.
8. Eliminate wheat
Some people have chronic stomach problems that are caused by food intolerance. Wheat sensitivities are the most common, and eliminating wheat and gluten is often the only solution. If you’ve tried everything and are still in pain, it may be worth giving up wheat and gluten for 4-6 weeks to see if it helps. If it works, now you know. If it doesn’t, at least you tried.
9. Eliminate dairy
Like gluten, many people have sensitivities to lactose, the sugar in milk, that can develop over time. Cutting it out for a few weeks is an easy way to tell if it is a problem for you.
10. Avoid fake sugars
Sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and xylitol can cause digestive problems similar to the oligosaccharides found in beans. If you’ve been relying on artificial sweeteners to cut back on real sugar, this may be a cause of your digestive issues.
11. Reduce fresh and dried fruit intake
Fructose can ferment in the gut, and too much will result in gas and discomfort. If you’ve drastically increased your fruit intake, this may be problematic for your digestion. Cut back until you find the amount you can tolerate.
(Note: I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you’ve eliminated most of the high-fructose corn syrup from your diet already).
12. Use medication
Beano is an enzyme formulation that helps with digestion of oligosaccharides that can cause gas. If you simply cannot miss out on your grandpa’s famous chili, popping the occasional Beano at the beginning of your meal should help.
On the other hand, if you still haven’t figured out what you’re sensitive to and find yourself in an unpleasant state, Gas-X is an effective form of relief that can be used on occasion. It takes 20-30 minutes to work. As always, be sure to follow the safety instructions when taking any medication.
How strong is your stomach?
Originally published October 26, 2011.