We don't do diets. But we still love to eat — and we want to eat well. In her column, How To Eat, Refinery29's favorite intuitive eating coach Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, will help you do just that by answering the food and nutrition questions that really matter. Send yours to heythere@refinery29.com.

I try to load up on veggies rather than eat junky foods, but they tend to make me so bloated, and then I just feel unhealthy and blah. Any tips to fight it?

Ah, yes, the dreaded veggie bloat. This is such a common issue, because so many of us are (rightly) trying to load up on all things leafy. In fact, the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that most adults consume two and a half to three cups of vegetables per day (along with two cups of fruit), yet data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that strikingly few of us meet that recommendation. But as much as it seems like you can never have too many plants in your diet, more isn’t always better.

There are two scenarios in which vegetables can lead to uncomfortable bloating: You’re eating too many of them in general, or you’ve recently started eating a lot more of them than you’re used to eating.

First, you should know that there isn't any additional health benefit to be gained from eating more than five servings a day of fruits and veggies combined, research shows. A large 2014 review from the Harvard School of Public Health, for example, looked at data from 16 studies on the link between fruit and veggie consumption and risk of death for more than 833,000 people who were followed for up to 26 years. The researchers found that each individual serving up to five servings (a serving is one cup of leafy greens, one medium fruit, or half a cup of chopped or cooked fruit or vegetables) was associated with a 5% decrease in risk of death; after five servings, the protection plateaued. This may be because, as great as kale, carrots, assorted fruits, and the like are for you, your body may only be able to process and use a limited amount of the nutrients within them per day.
So really, if you're eating more than that five servings, the bloating probably isn't even worth it. Now, if you're nowhere near five servings a day, it's definitely worth making an increase. But bloating is a possibility when you're ramping up from zero. That’s because vegetables contain lots of fiber, which is fermented by bacteria in the colon (known as the intestinal microbiota), producing gas in the process. The more fiber you consume, the more gas and bloating may occur.
Over time, your body can adapt to moderate levels of veggie consumption (in that two-to-three-cups-per-day ballpark) within a few months, but if you’re routinely eating more than that, you’ll probably continue to feel bloated. Additionally, some people have imbalances in their microbiota that develop after bouts of food poisoning or antibiotic use, making them more sensitive to the effects of fiber.

It’s not unhealthy to be bloated, in the sense that it won’t cause lasting damage, but it sure is uncomfortable.

You can cut down on this discomfort by dialing back the veggie consumption a bit: Try continuing to eat veggies as part of your lunches and dinners, but see if you can make your snacks less fiber-heavy. Fruit and nuts are the obvious alternatives, but they’re still fairly high in fiber. Instead, you might notice that incorporating a serving or two of more easily digestible snacks like pretzels, chips, cookies, or crackers (with no added fiber) actually feels better and causes less bloating later in the day. And I’d encourage you not to label these snacks as “junky,” but instead think of them as necessary components of variety, moderation, and balance — the true keys to good nutrition.

And then there’s the matter of how you feel about bloating, which is equally important to address. I totally get why bloating can make you feel bad physically; while being bloated means different things to different people, it typically involves some amount of intestinal gas and abdominal distension that can make you feel constricted by your clothes.

That’s uncomfortable for anyone, even people with a fabulous body image. But bloating is extra tough for people who struggle to accept and love their bodies (which is the majority of women, btw). And I think that’s often the bigger issue for many people who worry about it.

I don’t know if this was a factor for you, but to anyone who worries about bloating, I invite you to consider the role that body negativity might be playing in the “blah” feeling.

Just as dieting and weight concerns now often go under the guise of “wellness,” fear of being fat can get cloaked as concern about bloating. Western society is obsessed with bloating right now (just glance at the covers of women’s magazines the next time you’re in a checkout line), and it’s largely for aesthetic reasons, not for health. Bloating makes your belly stick out, which makes people worry that they “look fat.” And where there’s fear of looking fat, the diet industry is right there to fan the flames. Scratch the surface of our cultural obsession with bloating, and you’ll find fat-phobia.

In reality, having a belly that sticks out is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s increasingly common to see people rocking clothes that highlight, rather than hide, their bellies (VBO, anyone?). It’s a courageous act in a society that’s still overwhelmingly body-negative, and maybe that’s not for you just yet. But you can take a step in the body-positive direction by deciding to stop beating yourself up for the occasional belly bloat.

Christy Harrison is an NYC-based registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in intuitive eating, eating disorder recovery, and Health at Every Size. She writes about food and nutrition for various publications and hosts Food Psych, a podcast dedicated to improving your relationship with food.


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