It’s that time of year when we’re coming out of holiday season, and some of us are feeling it in the waistline. There’s nothing like a little overindulgence to make us more aware of our mid-sections. Belly bloat can be fat or it can be air, and at least one is easier to flatten than the other.
I’ve struggled with stomach problems, IBS, and food allergies since I was a little kid. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that dairy (other than certain Greek yogurts or kefir), wheat, and veggies like broccoli or brussels sprouts cause more of a problem than others. But avoiding these foods didn’t solve all my problems.
Recently, I decided to do a deeper dive into what causes bloating and upset stomach, and it turns out I’d missed some gigantic findings in the last few years. After reading this research, I’ve realized there are tons of old wives tales and myths floating around the internet that might be doing more harm than good for people like me and should be debunked (like recommending fennel or chamomile tea for an upset stomach). Or how quickly some articles point the finger at salt or sodium as a cause of bloating, when new evidence shows that active people probably need a decent amount of this.
I’ve even been to a stomach specialist who’d never heard of the FODMAP research I’m about to share, but it’s gaining momentum now because it works.
In 2005, a wonderful woman named Dr. Shepard from the Monash University in Australia and her colleague identified exactly what causes bloating, digestive pain and IBS in sensitive people and why (study overview here).
Basically, certain carbohydrates aren’t absorbed properly by the small intestine, distending the inside of your gut and causing all kinds of horrible symptoms. By the way, distension = “outward expansion beyond the normal girth of the stomach and waist”. EW!
These carbohydrates actually ferment into hydrogen (instead of methane, which is occurs when food is “well absorbed” in your stomach), and you can test for it on people’s breath. For example, beans give off hydrogen when they ferment, and how many people have issues with beans? There’s even a song about them!
The good news? In studies, people with stomach issues who cut out these carbohydrates noticed a significant improvement. Sign me up!
What are FODMAPS?
It’s an acronym for these troublesome carbos:
Polyols (sugar alcohols)
As one blogger puts it, FODMAPS are carbohydrates that act like fast food for gut bacteria. Yuck! Kind of an overwhelming list? Yes. Are there some surprising foods in these categories that would suck to give up? Yes.
Comprehensive lists of foods in each category can be found here. This is a quick list of the major items that I was shocked to learn were hard on sensitive digestive systems, and ones that weren’t:
High FODMAP (Bad): Apples, onions,watermelon, garlic, mushrooms, avocados, fruits with pits (all my faves), fennel and chamomile (used as digestion teas!?)
Low FODMAP (Good): olives, peppers
Foods that I didn’t think were surprising:
High FODMAP (Bad): lactose, beans, gluten, and sweetners found in protein bars and sugar free gum (most commonly, sorbitol), Quest and protein bars
Low FODMAP (Good): Tomatoes, cucumber, bananas, berries, squash, potatoes, yam, oats, stevia
So What Now?… Know Your Own Gut!
Everyone has different sensitivity levels. FODMAP researchers recommend doing an elimination diet, and reintroducing items one at a time. There is no way I could go that extreme, so I started by eliminating black list items that I ate daily (apples, onions, garlic, avocado, and Quest bars). The result was incredible – no more stomach cramps, bloating, or pain.
Since I love all of these foods I experimented with eating small amounts of them, and learned that the single most deadly thing I can do is eat them all at once. Apples (my fave fruit) were my worst offender, but it’s been worth it to me to cut them out. Onions and garlic are (sadly) a deadly combination for me in large amounts, but I can handle small amounts. I only eat large quantities when I’m up for dealing with a belly ache/not wearing a bikini the next day!
Stevia is my favorite no calorie sweetner, and green onion (except the white part) has been a great substitute. Avocado is totally fine in small amounts.
There are still plenty of amazing fruits and veggies that you can eat in abundance on FODMAP (see pics). Putting more emphasis on these items has completely changed my life. When I’m on the go, I bake my own high protein oat bran muffins or pack a few almonds to cut down on protein bars, and there are a zillion blogs out there with great recipe ideas.
Digestive Enzymes and Quest Bars:
Alpha-galactosidase or “Beano” is useful for breaking down oligo-saacharides (the “O” in FODMAP), not just beans. It helps with veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, and chicory root fiber (often found in protein bars). Also, I was surprised to learn that the fiber that makes up my favorite protein bar, Quest, is isomalto-oligo-saacharide. I assume that these chewable enzymes would help with certain protein bars as well.
Obviously, I’m not a doctor so this is purely based on my opinion and experience with the research. Talk to a doctor, and take my advice at your own risk. But if you’re feeling bloated and want to flatten your belly (assuming it’s not because you need to hit the gym), you might want to give this a shot. Let me know how it goes!
The University of Monash – Home of the original FODMAP diet (they even have an app you can buy)
Great FODMAP Recipes
Kate Scarlata’s blog, a RDN with FODMAP focus