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What causes bloating and how can I prevent it?

It’s not uncommon to feel bloated if you eat a particularly big meal. But for some people, bloating is a common problem related not to the size of the portion, but to what’s on the plate. 

So, what are the most common dietary triggers of bloating and what can you do to prevent, minimise or treat the problem?

In the UK, the most common causes of bloating are intolerances/sensitivity to a particular food group, food allergies and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In all of these cases, eating food that your gut finds difficult to digest can trigger a reaction. This, in turn, can cause gas to build up in the stomach or cause swelling due to the ‘erratic propulsion of contents through the gut’, in the case of IBS. This can be uncomfortable, and even unsightly if the bloating is severe enough to cause noticeable swelling of the abdomen.

Food allergies and food intolerances – what’s the difference?

A food allergy is a severe, adverse reaction to a particular food that often causes the immune system to produce antibodies to fight off the allergen. Reactions range from life-threatening - such as in anaphylaxis, to severe and distressing; anything from skin rashes to diarrhoea. True food allergies (these can only be diagnosed from blood tests) are relatively rare, affecting around 2% of adults and 8% of children in the UK.

Food intolerances, also known as food sensitivities, are usually less severe but can be very distressing. Around 20 – 30% of people in the UK believe they are intolerant to at least one food. Symptoms can be delayed for hours, even days, making triggers difficult to pinpoint and eliminate from the diet. The most common signs of food intolerance are eczema, diarrhoea, constipation, joint pain/inflammation, stomach cramps, excessive wind and bloating. Excess wind and bloating often occur because the bowel doesn’t empty properly and so the body continues to try and break down food by producing bacteria.

Common food intolerances

In theory, we could be intolerant to just about anything we eat or drink. However, there are some more common culprits that are known to cause bloating. 

Wheat and gluten

Wheat and gluten intolerances are probably the most common food intolerances in adults in the UK. They differ from each other and from coeliac disease, which is a lifelong, often inherited condition that causes damage to the small intestine. Coeliac disease can only be managed by sticking rigidly to a completely gluten-free diet. For those with wheat intolerance, following a gluten-free diet won’t solve the problem, as the remaining part of the wheat grain can still cause an adverse reaction. In this case, eliminating wheat completely is the only way to avoid symptoms altogether. For some people with a sensitivity, reintroducing the food/food group in question slowly, after a period of time without it, can prove an effective way of reducing symptoms or getting rid of the intolerance altogether. Part of the reason why this is one of the most common food intolerances today is because our diet has become heavier in refined wheat products, such as bread, pasta and breakfast cereals.

Common misconceptions: That wheat and gluten are the same allergen and that coeliac disease and wheat/gluten intolerance are the same thing. Lots of people also think that oats contain gluten – in fact they contain the avenin protein, which can be digested by some people with gluten intolerance.

Dairy products

Dairy can also cause bloating if your gut has problems digesting either lactose (the naturally occurring sugar in dairy products) or the milk protein, which is particularly large in the case of cow’s milk, compared with goat’s milk, for example.

Common misconceptions: That lactose and milk protein intolerances are the same thing, and that eggs are categorised as dairy – they’re actually part of the protein family.

Certain vegetables, beans and pulses

The sugars and starches in onions, cabbages, cauliflower, sprouts and broccoli are all known to cause excess wind and bloating in some people. And beans and lentils also contain sugars called oligosaccharides that can only be broken down when the gut produces bacteria. Make sure you still eat plenty of fruit and vegetables if you decide to cut some or all of these foods out.

Common misconceptions: That you have to stop eating the offending food(s) completely; for some people, simply eating less of it can be enough to relieve bloating.

It is worth noting that these foods offer some very important health benefits and in the case of food intolerances, don’t necessarily need to be removed from the diet completely in order to reduce/eliminate problems.

What to do if you don’t know what’s causing your bloating

Relieving the symptoms of bloating isn’t always as simple as cutting out wheat or gluten, for example – sometimes it takes time to figure out what’s causing you to feel bloated. Following a tailored eating plan, as part of nutritional therapy, is a non-invasive approach to your health that can improve your symptoms dramatically. A good first step towards finding the right diet is keeping a diary of what you eat and when you feel bloated. Do this for a few weeks to see if you can spot a pattern of triggers. Even if you discover a clear pattern, it’s a good idea to have a dietary consultation before embarking on a drastic change of diet. This will ensure that you still get all the nutrition you need from other food sources, while keeping bloating at bay.

Spotting the ‘red flags’

An unbalanced diet or poor nutrition can be the cause of chronic illnesses such as IBS. In most cases, a diagnosis is based on typical symptoms, such as stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation, and can be managed through specific changes to your diet and lifestyle. It’s important, however, to be able to recognise ‘red flag’ symptoms that could indicate a more serious condition, such as cancer. These can include; unexplained weight loss, a swelling or lump in your stomach or rectum, bleeding from your rectum or anaemia. If you do notice any ‘red flag’ symptoms, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor, who may recommend having a colonoscopy to check for any abnormalities in your gut.

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