Stomach bloating: The ‘sneaky’ ingredient that could be causing your tummy to swell

Stomach bloating is a common complaint in the UK. The excesses of modern day living could partly be to blame – binging on gassy foods and fizzy drinks usually triggers the condition. The uncomfortable sensation brought on by an expanding waistline can halt plans at the last-minute. Although some culprits are easy to spot, there is one ingredient that might be slipping under people’s radar.

Bloating is one of the leading gastrointestinal complaints in the U.S. and can be exacerbated in some people by a high-fibre diet

Noel Mueller, senior author

A study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that individuals reported more gastrointestinal bloating when they ate a diet high in salt.

The scientists re-analysed data from a large clinical trial – the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension-Sodium trial (DASH-Sodium) – conducted two decades ago, and found that high sodium intake increased bloating among trial participants.

The researchers also found that the high-fibre DASH diet increased bloating among trial participants compared to a low-fibre control diet.

“Bloating is one of the leading gastrointestinal complaints in the U.S. and can be exacerbated in some people by a high-fibre diet; our results suggest that they might be able to reduce that bloating, without compromising on healthy fibre, by lowering their sodium intake,” says study senior author Noel Mueller, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Bloomberg School.

Bloating is usually caused by a buildup of excess gas in the gut. The production of gas can be attributed to gas-producing gut bacteria breaking down fibre.

There is also some evidence that sodium can stimulate bloating. The study by Mueller and colleagues is the first to examine sodium as a cause of bloating in the context of low- and high-fibre diets.

The study analysed data from the DASH-Sodium trial, which was co-led by Bloomberg School researcher Lawrence Appel, MD, MPH, and sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Conducted at four clinical centres during 1998-99, it tested the DASH diet, a high-fibre diet which is relatively low in fat and high in fruits, nuts, and vegetables, against a low-fibre control diet.

Each of the two diets was tested at three levels of sodium, and the 412 participants all had high blood pressure at the trial start.

The trial was set up chiefly to determine the effect of dietary sodium and other factors on blood pressure, but included data on participants’ reports of bloating – data that Mueller and colleagues analysed for the new study.

The team found that prior to the trial, 36.7 percent of the participants reported bloating, which is more or less in line with national surveys of bloating prevalence.

They found too that the high-fibre DASH diet increased the risk of bloating by about 41 percent, compared to the low-fibre control diet — and men were more susceptible to this effect, compared to women.

But the scientists also determined that sodium was a factor in bloating. When they combined data from the DASH and control diets, and compared the highest level of sodium intake to the lowest, they found that the high-sodium versions of those diets collectively increased the risk of bloating by about 27 percent compared to the low-sodium versions.

The key implication is that reducing sodium can be an effective way to reduce bloating — and in particular may be able to help people maintain a healthy, high-fibre diet.

A sensitivity or intolerance to fibre-rich foods such as wheat may also cause bloating, said the NHS.

“Some people may only have problems with pasta, for example, while others are fine until they eat bread,” explained the health body.

It added: “If you are sensitive to wheat, or you have trouble digesting it, the main way to relieve your symptoms is to embark on a wheat-free or partially wheat-free diet.”

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