Is Bloating Really A Health Concern?

Photographed by Bianca Valle.

A few hours after finishing off your lunch, you might notice that it feels uncomfortable to sit at your desk because you're so gassy, puffy, and bloated. Hey, you may even unbutton your pants to get some relief. While it may be common to hear someone complain that they're "so bloated," should you be legitimately concerned about how much bloating you experience on a daily basis?

Probably not. Occasional bloating after eating is usually just a sign that your stomach and intestines are doing their job, says Hazel Galon Veloso, MD, faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Stomachs are meant to expand, and often do so after a person eats. But usually, people just say they're "bloated" when they feel any "sensation of abdominal fullness," Dr. Veloso says. And unfortunately, many people associate any kind of belly puffiness with being "too full" or eating the "wrong" foods, so they assume that bloating must equal a problem. Fortunately, while bloating can be uncomfortable, it's not a health concern in and of itself, Dr. Veloso says.

According to a 2012 study, about 10 to 30% of healthy people (a.k.a. those who don't have any gastrointestinal issues) experience regular bloating after eating. Some foods, like cruciferous vegetables and legumes, can make you more bloated than others, Dr. Veloso says, because they produce more gas in your intestines (here's why that happens). Or, if you're someone who is lactose intolerant, you might notice extra bloating after you eat dairy products, she says. If that's the case, bloating will usually go away once you cut out the foods causing it, or when you start taking Lactaid supplements to help process the dairy foods, she says. (But before you make any major changes, know that your doctor can test for lactose intolerance.)

Stomachs are meant to expand, and often do so after a person eats.

There are also a few other lifestyle factors that can contribute to bloating besides your diet, Dr. Veloso says. For example, if you chew gum, drink carbonated beverages, or smoke, that can cause you to swallow air and make you feel bloated, she says. Anxiety can also cause some people to gulp more air, which then leads to more bloating and burping, she says. If this sounds like you, then curbing these habits (or attempting to manage your anxiety) may help reduce the amount of bloating that you feel on a daily basis. All of this is to say that your desire to unbutton your pants after a meal is likely not a reason for alarm.

That said, if you have persistent bloating regardless of what you eat, or if you have other symptoms beyond just bloating (like diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and/or increased flatulence), then you should probably see a doctor, Dr. Veloso says. It could be a sign of something more serious, like Celiac disease, in which case your doctor will need to run blood tests to determine what's going on, she says.

Or sometimes bloating is a symptom of "small bowel bacterial overgrowth," which tends to happen in people with diabetes or scleroderma, Dr. Veloso says. What that means is "their [bowels] become slower, so then bacteria can also overgrow in them," she says. Usually, this causes abdominal pain, cramps, and diarrhea, but can be treated with antibiotics and a change in diet, according to Medline Plus. There's also a slim chance that your constant bloating could be a tumor or a symptom of ovarian cancer, according to Medline Plus. But if you just tend to get a little puffy and bloated after meals, again, that usually is very normal.

While it's a good idea to just accept your bloating for what it is, it's also important to know what your abdominal region is like on a regular day so you can tell when something is supremely out of whack. "We always tolerate bloating if it's just mild, but if it's significant, it can be uncomfortable for the patient," Dr. Veloso says. But if you've already talked to your doctor, and your bloating isn't related to any health issues, your best bet is probably opting for an elastic waistband. Luckily, there are some chic options out there.