Bloating is a very common concern or complaint for people who are new to eating vegan, and sometimes for people who've been vegan for a while. It’s common to call bloating a “side effect” of a vegan diet and wonder how long bloating will last when going vegan.
This article covers what you need to know about bloating on a vegan diet, including:
- What is Bloating
- Is Bloating Normal?
- Do Plant-based Diets Cause Excess Bloating?
- Common Causes of Bloating
- How Long Does Bloating Last When Going Vegan?
- Bloating and Diet Culture
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What is Bloating?
Bloating is a sensation that the abdominal area is full, stretched or under increased pressure. Abdomens typically feel full of gas, fluid or food. Sometimes bloating makes the abdominal area feel swollen or hard to the touch.
The sensation of bloating may be accompanied by some pain or discomfort but not everyone experiences pain or discomfort when they feel bloated.
Bloating may or may not be accompanied with abdominal distension.
Bloating vs. Distension
Abdominal distension is an observable increase in size of the abdominal area. It's often used interchangeably with the term bloating, but these are two unique concepts.
Bloating is a feeling or sensation; distension is a physically observable change.
You could be both bloated and have abdominal distension or feel a sensation of bloating without abdominal distension. Typically, if there is abdominal distension, a sensation of bloating is present but this may not always be the case.
Is Bloating Normal?
Having gas, fluids and food moving through the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) is a normal part of digestion. Sometimes we can feel these moving through us, and other times we can’t (can also depend on the person).
- Gas can be swallowed while eating or produced as part of the digestive process.
- Fluids are consumed or, sometimes, pulled into the intestinal tract by the body (this can happen with certain types of diarrhea, with infections etc.).
- Food is of course going to be present in the GI tract as it's digested. After eating a large volume of food, it’s more likely someone would notice a full or stretched feeling in their abdomen.
Distension may also be normal for some people. Large volumes of food take up space, and depending on the size or shape of a body, this may be noticeable after meals.
It’s important to know when a normal process becomes problematic.
When Bloating Goes from “Normal” to Problematic
Let’s remember that we all have our own unique “normal”. Some people may be more sensitive to feelings in their digestive system where others may not. An increase in abdominal size after a meal is also highly variable between people.
So how do you know if your bloating and/ or abdominal distension are problematic? Speaking to your doctor is always your best bet.
You could also ask yourself the following two questions:
- Is my bloating impacting my life in any way? For example, pain, discomfort, preventing you from doing activities. If yes, time to see a doctor.
- Has there been any change in my bloating and/ or abdominal distension? If it’s getting worse (or simply not improving), time to see a doctor.
If there are no changes and the bloating/ distension you experience are not impacting your life, this may be your normal. However, if you have any concerns at all, speaking to a doctor to rule out any problems is the best bet.
Do Plant-based Diets Cause Excess Bloating?
People often say that bloating and excess gas are a “side effect” of transitioning to a plant-based diet. But do a plant-based diet and bloating go together?
Dietary changes can certainly lead to changes in digestion. Your body gets used to your normal intake and if this changes drastically, there may be an adjustment period.
When it comes to switching to a more plant-based diet and bloating, the increased fiber intake is often looked to as the culprit. There are two main reasons why fiber could lead to increased feelings of bloating:
- Fiber physically takes up space in the GI tract: If your intestines are used to smaller volumes of food and/ or foods lower in fiber, an increase of fiber may be felt (or seen i.e. distension).
- The digestion of fiber by gut bacteria creates gas: This is a normal part of digestion and not necessarily a bad thing but not everyone is equipped for the increase in fiber load during a dietary change such as moving to a plant-based diet.
I go into more details about fiber on a plant-based diet and bloating below.
Common Causes of Bloating
There are lots of reasons why someone might feel bloated or have visible abdominal distension. Some of the more commonly reported reasons for bloating and/ or distension are:
- Fiber Intake
- FODMAP Intake
- Swallowing Air
- Slow Digestion
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Celiac Disease
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis)
- Other Functional Bowel Disorders
Many of these are medical conditions which require diagnosis and treatment by a doctor. This is one reason it’s crucial to speak with a doctor about any concerns related to bloating and/ or distension.
Bloating, and digestive health in general, goes beyond just what we put into our body. Activity level, stress, sleep and other lifestyle factors can play a huge role in how happy and healthy our digestive system is. I won’t be covering these factors, or the medical conditions related to bloating, as I want to keep the focus on food and eating behaviors for this article.
Before we get into more details, remember that everyone is an individual. What causes problems for one person, may not for another. Fiber, FODMAPs and the other topics below aren’t “bad” just because they may be problematic for some people.
Fiber Intake and Bloating
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that isn’t digested or absorbed by the human GI tract. This means fiber moves through the GI tract whole. This creates bulk in the intestines, which can lead to feeling pressure or fullness. Some people may experience this as a sensation of bloating.
While humans can’t digest fiber, the good bacteria in the large intestine can.
The process of the good bacteria breaking down some of the fiber we eat can lead to the creation of gas. If a lot of gas is produced, it could make the intestines feel full or stretched, leading to a feeling of bloating.
In theory, fiber intake should help regulate the bowels (as in, cause more regular bowel movements). Sometimes however, constipation or diarrhea could be the result; both of which may lead to a feeling of bloating.
Gut bacteria changes with changing diet. It may take a bit of time to build up the good bacteria in the gut to handle the fiber load of a dietary change such as moving to a plant-based diet.
It’s impossible to say how long this may take as everyone is an individual. However, a few days to a couple of weeks may be realistic. Progressing dietary changes slowly (i.e. increasing fiber intake slowly) may help mitigate the potential for problems with bloating when eating plant-based.
If the bloating and/ or distention persist, cause discomfort or pain, worsen (rather than improve) or never improve back to where you feel “normal”, speaking with a doctor or Registered Dietitian is a good idea.
FODMAP Intake and Bloating
FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrate compounds that may not be digested well by some people. If they aren’t digested well, it could lead to irritation in the digestive tract including bloating and distension.
Not everyone is impacted by eating FODMAPs in the same way and it’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating FODMAPs. The specific type of FODMAP and/ or the amount makes a huge difference between different people.
FODMAPs are found in a variety of foods, some of which may be consumed in larger amounts on a vegan diet. Common higher FODMAP foods are:
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peas, soy)
- Certain vegetables (allium and cruciferous vegetables tend to be the highest)
- Certain fruits (stone fruits, apples, pears and mangoes tend to be higher)
- Grains (ex. wheat, rye, barley)
- Lactose foods (dairy)
- Sweeteners (honey, agave, sugar alcohols, high fructose corn syrup)
This is not a comprehensive list and is just intended as an example. These are not “bad” foods and don’t need to be avoided by a majority of people. In fact, most of the foods on this list are considered to be extremely healthy and staple food groups for a plant-based diet.
There’s lots of talk out there about FODMAP elimination but doing this is not a straight forward process. It’s also super important to know that FODMAP elimination diets are only intended to be temporary and it’s critical to move through the reintroduction phase to truly determine what sensitivities there are (if any) and determine how much each individual can tolerate (and which specific foods are more of a trigger).
Working with a Registered Dietitian is highly recommended for modifying FODMAP intake especially on a vegan diet (as many of the FODMAP foods contain essential nutrients for vegans).
Swallowing Air and Bloating
Chewing gum, drinking through a straw, eating quickly and eating hard candies may all be habits and behaviors that can increase the amount of air that is swallowed. Drinking carbonated beverages (including drinks like beer) also leads to swallowing air.
While this air may be belched, it could also move lower into the GI tract and lead to feelings of bloating.
Chewing gum may be even more problematic for bloating as many chewing gums are sugar free but instead contain sugar alcohols (a type of FODMAP that may irritate the GI tract in some people).
Chewing food thoroughly, not talking when eating, eating slowly, not using a straw, avoiding chewing gum and not drinking carbonated beverages may help with bloating if any of these behaviors are leading to increased air in the GI tract.
Slow Digestion and Bloating
Slow digestion may be due to the type of foods being eaten or may represent an issue with the function of the GI tract. Functional issues should be diagnosed and treated by a healthcare provider.
The most common example of slow digestion is constipation. Constipation can cause bloating because the intestines are physically full of food (stool) and this increases pressure in the abdomen. The body attempting to pass this stool may lead to feelings of pain. If this happens regularly or you notice a worsening of symptoms, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor.
Managing constipation needs to be done on an individual basis because the cause of the constipation needs to be determined to properly know how to resolve this issue.
Another commonly reported cause of slow digestion is eating a meal that is very high in fat. Not a meal that contains fat, but one with a very large amount of fat or where a high proportion of calories are coming from fat.
Fat can slow digestion and absorption of food. This is actually one of the reasons why eating fat is encouraged to help with satiation and fullness. But for some people, or with some meals, this could work against you.
One way to navigate this is to keep a journal of what you eat and whether you feel bloating or distension after the meal. This could help identify foods or meals that may need some tweaking.
How Long Does Bloating Last When Going Vegan?
Some amount of bloating may always be present on a vegan diet, especially one that is high in fiber and overall volume. If this bloating is painless and doesn’t cause discomfort (meaning if it just feels like the stomach or abdominal area is full and/ or looks like the stomach or abdominal area is a bit larger after a meal) then there shouldn’t be too much to worry about.
If after going vegan or transitioning to a mostly plant-based diet, bloating persists or discomfort is felt, this may not be normal and a doctor may need to be consulted.
As noted above, it’s normal to have some amount of gas buildup in the GI tract. Higher fiber diets may lead to more gas production.
Also, vegan diets may be higher in total volume. Plant-based diets may offer fewer calories per bite and therefore many vegans find they need to consume larger volumes of food to meet energy needs. This larger volume of food has to travel through the GI tract and may lead to bloating and/ or distention.
Everyone, vegan or otherwise, is likely to experience bloating at some point. The important thing is to notice if the situation is changing, worsening or if it’s impacting daily life in any way. These are reasons to speak to a doctor.
If your vegan diet is causing excess bloating (i.e. bloating that is uncomfortable or painful) there are ways to help lessen this. A lower fiber intake or lower volume intake could help if the bloating and/ or distension are impacting quality of life. Modifying FODMAPs, managing how much air is swallowed and determining which foods or meals are related to bloating (and tweaking as needed) are also possible solutions.
Bloating and Diet Culture
I can’t write an article about bloating without addressing the diet culture related to bloating and having a “flat stomach”. There are many people who have normal bloating (no pain, discomfort, other concerns) but feel it is a problem simply due to wanting a “flat stomach”.
Saying "I feel bloated" is the newer way to say "I feel fat". While bloating can certainly be a serious concern, we can't ignore the diet culture implications of using bloating in this way.
There is way too much pressure (on the internet, from “influencers”, etc.) about having a flat stomach. The amount of “tips and tricks” for “getting rid of bloating” strictly for the purpose of a flatter abdomen just demonstrates how ingrained diet culture is in society.
Firstly, having a flat stomach is not the reality for the vast majority of people. Women especially are likely to carry some fat on their abdomen (men as well). This is perfectly normal and completely acceptable. If you are in a place where you cannot accept this aspect of your body, it may be time to seek out some help to develop a better relationship with your body and/ or food.
Second, a flat stomach means absolutely nothing in terms of health and desiring this is a result of diet culture. As above, it’s not a realistic “goal” for most people who either have some fat on their abdomen and/ or experience some bloating/ distension as part of their normal digestion. The extremes people go through to get a “flat stomach” may be extremely harmful. Most are not sustainable for any length of time.
Third, the “flat stomachs” you see online likely appear that way due to posing/ lighting and other tricks (including editing the image). If these people with “flat stomachs” were to sit down, relax their stomach muscles or pose in a different way, that stomach would very likely not be flat.
Let's not forget that genetics also comes into play. Some people are simply more likely than others to store fat on their abdomen (or not).
Many people are concerned about bloating because of how they perceive their outward appearance to look when they feel bloated and/ or have abdominal distension. Some amount of bloating is a normal part of digestion and something to appreciate (because it means the digestive system is working, breaking down food and providing your body with what it needs).
As above, if there are any concerns with bloating (discomfort, pain, a change in the frequency/ severity, impacting life in anyway, etc.) this is something to work through with a doctor (and/ or Registered Dietitian).
I don’t want to make anyone feel bad about desiring a flat stomach. Diet culture is largely unavoidable. Being able to call out diet culture is a good first step on the journey of escaping these unrealistic and often harmful expectations. Again, bloating can be completely normal or problematic; if you have any concerns please seek help from a medical professional.
Summary: Bloating on a Vegan Diet
Some level of bloating is to be expected as part of digestion, especially when consuming a diet higher in fiber such as a plant-based diet. Sometimes, with a large dietary change, the body needs some time to adjust.
There are some aspects of a diet or eating behaviors that may be modifiable to help manage bloating (fiber, FODMAPs, swallowing air, slow digestion). If you are concerned about bloating, especially if it’s persistent and associated with discomfort or pain, please seek out the help of your primary care provider.
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