Wheat belly is a term I am sure you have heard before. Images of white bread and pasta inflating the stomach and causing uncomfortable bloating and gas is a common belief of many who read health articles online. However, wheat belly may not be a phenomenon in everyone, and its cause may not be completely understood. Therefore, let’s explore the possible reasons some people may experience bloating after eating wheat and others do not.
What exactly is bloating?
Bloating happens when the abdomen becomes swollen with fluid and/or gas. It can be very uncomfortable with feelings of pressure in the abdomen, and in some cases may cause abdominal cramping. Bloating can make it difficult to fit into everyday clothing and can cause individuals to become self-conscious. Although gas relief medicines may help a bit, bloating is likely to persist unless the root cause is determined and treated.
Wheat and bloating
Contrary to popular belief, wheat is not likely to cause bloating in everyone. Those most at risk for bloating from wheat are those with a wheat allergy or intolerance. Those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity cannot tolerate wheat, and when exposed to it, experience symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, gas, and bloating.
With celiac disease, gluten exposure triggers an immune response since the body thinks gluten is a pathogen. In turn, inflammation occurs in the intestinal tract, and painful symptoms and intestinal damage arise. On the other hand, in those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), gluten also triggers symptoms, but does not damage the intestine. In fact, no specific cause of NCGS has been discovered yet.
Theories exist that the yeast from bread causes bloating, so everyone should avoid it. However, yeast dies during the process of baking bread.
Why then do some people get bloated when consuming bread and other related starches?
If you have not been diagnosed with one of the wheat-related conditions above, and bread still causes you bloating and other digestive symptoms, then you may have a condition known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which is basically an overgrowth of bacteria in the intestine. Many people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are suspected to have SIBO. A more specific type of SIBO, is SIFO, or small intestinal fungal overgrowth, in which the overgrown bacteria are yeast like Candida albicans. In these conditions, the bacteria feed on fermented carbohydrates, so any foods high in sugars like fructose or lactose, for example, can cause symptoms. Therefore, avoiding such foods, like those foods high in FODMAPs, could be helpful in reducing symptoms.
Other causes of bloating
If a diet low in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) does not work, then your bloating may be from one of these other causes.
- Other food intolerances like lactose or fructose malabsorption can cause abdominal cramping, bloating, gas, and changes in bowel movements. Therefore, foods high in lactose, or milk sugar, like certain non-fermented dairy products, and/or foods high in fructose, or fruit sugar, like apples, watermelon, or processed foods using high fructose corn syrup, could cause digestive symptoms like bloating.
- Carbonation from consumption of fizzy drinks like cola, sparkling water, seltzer water, beer, and some wines can cause gas to get trapped in the abdomen, which can cause bloating.
- Eating or drinking too fast or eating too large of meals at one sitting can also cause bloating. This is because when too much food is consumed too fast, it does not give the digestive tract enough time to properly digest the food. Undigested food can lead to bloating and gas, among other digestive symptoms.
- Malabsorption and low stomach acid are two conditions that can cause nutrient absorption issues and does not allow food to be fully digested, in turn leading to digestive symptoms like bloating. Low stomach acid can be caused by many factors and is often associated with heartburn. Meanwhile, malabsorption, which also has many causes, may be present when labs show low levels of nutrients like vitamin B12 or iron.
Take home message
Although bloating can be caused by wheat in some cases, there are many reasons why a person may be bloated. If bloating is becoming a chronic symptom for you, it may be a good idea to visit your physician or other qualified healthcare provider to see what the cause may be. An elimination diet involving cutting out common digestive culprits like gluten, dairy, fructose, eggs, and other foods may be helpful in identifying which foods cause your symptoms. A dietitian could be a great resource to help you through this elimination diet process and help you identify potential symptom triggers.
Shopping for Low FODMAP Foods doesn’t have to be tricky, just bring along Casa De Sante’s free Low FODMAP grocery list and you’re good to go.
Written by Staci Gulbin, MS, RD a Board-certified dietitian.