Whether you’ve gone fully vegan or simply adopted meat-free Monday , there’s no doubt that eating more plants to your diet will benefit your health. However, the downside for some people, especially if you are new to plant-based eating is the effect of bloating - not just an uncomfortable swollen stomach but releasing more gas.
Rather than let this deter you from sticking to your newfound love of plant foods, there are many ways to help you to ban the bloat from your diet.
What causes bloating?
There are three main reasons you might have more bloat symptoms than usual.
1. Your digestive muscles are more tense
Bloating is down to excess gas production or a disturbance in the movement of muscles of the digestive system, which move the food along. Sitting hunched up while eating or being stressed while you are eating or even period cramps, could cause the muscles to be more tense.
2. You are eating hard-to-digest foods or have an intolerance
Certain foods can cause bloating too specifically those high in fibre, sugar or complex carbohydrates that the body can’t digest. Food intolerances, overeating and conditions such as coeliac disease or IBS can have an impact too.
3. Your gut microbes aren't working properly
breaking your food down properly. The diversity (or lack of it) of bacteria in your gut can also lead to bloating as certain foods end up only partially being broken down because we don't have the full spectrum of bacteria to digest them, meaning they sit there fermenting and creating excess gas. Nice!
Which foods cause bloating or make it worse?
These plant foods may make bloating worse especially if you’re new to eating them or have increased your intake. Many of these foods that cause bloating are high in FODMAPS which are short-chain carbohydrates that pass straight through to the colon where they’re fermented by gut bacteria (and produce lots of gas).
· Cruciferous vegetables (e.g. cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale)
· Beans, pulses and lentils
· Wheat, barley and rye
· Soy foods
How to reduce the bloating effects of your veg
1. Soak your beans and cook them with seaweed
Soaking your beans in water overnight helps to break down the complex sugars that can cause bloating. These sugars are called oligosaccharides and once they reach the colon, bacteria begin to ferment them. Once you have soaked your beans, drain them and then cook in fresh water.
Adding seaweed or bay leaves to your cooking water also helps to reduce bloating. Enzymes in these foods help to break down indigestible sugars.
2. Choose lighter coloured lentils
Lentils are loaded with useful nutrients for people following a plant-based diet but can cause bloating as they’re very high in fibre. Lighter coloured varieties are lower in fibre so try choosing red lentils over brown or green.
3. Try soaking nuts
Soaking nuts overnight is a helpful way to reduce the phytate content. Phytates are compounds in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds that can bind to dietary minerals such as iron, zinc, manganese and calcium and inhibit their absorption. It also makes them difficult to digest. The result? You guessed it - gas! Reducing the phytates through soaking also means nutrients in these foods are made more available which is bonus. Keep soaked nuts in the fridge afterwards as they will perish more quickly.
4. Switch to gluten-free pasta
Newcomers to plant-based eating often find that they’re eating more carbohydrate foods such as pasta, especially as a quick fix or while they get used to cooking with ingredients such as beans, pulses and lentils. Some people find pasta a little bloating so try switching to wheat-free varieties made from corn or buckwheat (which is a seed and not wheat as the name suggests).
5. Steer clear of broccoli, sprouts and cabbage
Cruciferous vegetables (sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, kale and cauliflower) are well known to cause bloating. This is because we don't possess the enzyme to break down a complex sugar called raffinose, which is then left to ferment in the gut and causes gas. Try swapping cruciferous vegetables for other varieties such as courgettes, spinach, lettuce, sweet potatoes and cucumbers.
6. Ditch bloating onion and garlic for other flavours
If onion and garlic get you gassy but you love the flavour, switch to garlic oil, onion seeds or chives. You can also ramp up the flavours of your food with herbs and spices.
7. Choose dried mushroom over fresh
Fresh mushrooms contain polyols (a type of carbohydrate) which can cause bloating. For a rich mushroom flavour, try making a stock out of dried porcini mushrooms. For recipes that require fresh chopped mushrooms, try replacing with chopped courgette which has a similar texture.
8. Choose cooked vegetables over raw
Cooking vegetables can help to start the process of breaking them down which will make them easier on the gut and may help to reduce bloating, especially when it comes to cruciferous veg.
9. Switch from grains to pseudo-grains
Some people find that certain grains such as barley or spelt can be quite bloating. Psuedograins look like grains but are derived from seeds and include quinoa and buckwheat. These are a little easier to digest and may help to ease bloating.
10. Cook from scratch
Whether they are plant-based and vegan or not, convenience foods are still often loaded with fat and sugar which are two things that can contribute to bloating. Try to cook from scratch where possible or look for freshly prepared ready meals. There are also lots of options when you’re looking for something to eat for lunch from the high street.
11. Try a lower-fat diet
A diet high in fat and especially saturated fat (found not just in animal products but also coconut oil) can impact on digestion and in some cases may contribute to heartburn and bloating as it takes a long time to digest.
Low fat spreads have come a long way - they not longer contain unhealthy hydrogenated (trans) fats and are made up of natural ingredients (oil and water and sunflower lecithin, a natural emulsifier). Light versions (Flora Light is the only Vegan Society approved margarine) contain more water and can help to reduce the fat content of the diet and so may help to reduce indigestion and bloating.
What else can you do to reduce bloating and ease digestion?
If you suddenly add lots of fibrous plant foods to your diet it can be great for your skin and overall health, but do it slowly. It's hard to digest and your body needs to get used to it and build up fibre-loving microbes.
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Drink plenty of water to accommodate extra fibre in the diet helping it to swell and move through the gut. Many people forget this.
Include probiotic foods in your diet such as live vegan yoghurt or kimchi.
Avoid excess sugar as this can disrupt a balanced microbiota. Avoid sweeteners, even plant-based ones such as xylitol, stevia and as they are a high FODMAP food.
Eat smaller portions of food (little and often) to avoid indigestion and overloading the system.
Chew your food slowly to start the breakdown of food in the mouth and to stimulate your digestive enzymes all along the digestive tract.
Drink mint or ginger to help relax the muscles in the gut.
Rob Hobson is a registered nutritionist. Follow him at @robhobsonnutritionist