Lean But Bloated: Tips on How to Improve Digestion

I’ve come across a lot of social media posts regarding “bloating”. Mostly speaking on the topic of “I bloat too”. Ever find it odd that some very lean athletes, still look a little distended in their midsection? You’re eyes are not deceiving you. Having a six pack is not the best indicator of optimal health. In many scenarios, it’s covering up a deeper rooted issue.

The picture below, was gathered from 2010, when I was on my journey towards competing. Sure, I was lean, however, I was bloated, distended, uncomfortable and well on my way to experiencing a host of metabolic issues, that of which included symptoms of "leaky gut syndrome". In this blog, I will go on to discuss bloating and hopefully debunk a few misconceptions about abs = health:

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What is bloat?

 Abs, but "distended abs"

Abs, but "distended abs"

Bloating can typically be described as swelling, gas or discomfort. Many of us have experienced bloating whether that is due to over-eating, enjoying foods that we have a sensitivity to, or it being that time of the month.

So what’s causing it? When we bloat, it could be a response to the following:

  1. Over eating

  2. Food sensitivities/inflammation

  3. Too many raw vegetables

  4. Chewing too much gum

  5. An imbalance of nutrients and macros

  6. Poor Vagus nerve activation

  7. Time of the month (menstrual cycle)

  8. Increase in Growth Hormone

Is it normal?

The body will respond to stressors by increasing our sympathetic tone (our “fight or flight” response) to remind us that something is threatening our survival. For instance, ever notice that when you eat something you’re sensitive too, that you not only get bloated, but ache, potentially develop hives, get irritable/moody and even experience heart rate changes? Well, that’s your bodies survival mechanism reminding you “hey, please don't eat that again?”

Bloating is a side effect of stress (remember that stress can be lack of sleep, poor management of work/life balance, food, too much or too little exercise). If we bloat, it’s probably a sign that something we did is causing digestion to slow and inflammation to rise. So is it normal? Yes, it is. However, is it “healthy”? In my opinion, I’m positive most of us would prefer to not walk around with a bloated and uncomfortable stomach.

What may be causing it?

  1. Chewing gum + Artificial sweeteners (like Splenda): Chewing gum releases the same digestive enzymes when food is introduced to our palate. When we start chewing gum, our body begins the digestive process by releasing enzymes and acids. However with no food to breakdown, this leads to an overproduction of stomach acids. An overproduction can compromise the production of these digestive aids when you actually do eat food. Therefore making it harder on our bodies to break food down. This is a very similar process when we consume artificial sweeteners. The body and brain are expecting to breakdown sugar, however when nothing reaches the intestinal tract, our body is left confused and as a result we tend to bloat.

  2. Too many raw veggies: Vegetables are highly encouraged for their high fiber content, which help us stay regular. However for many of us, veggies can also slow our metabolic rate. Vegetables are made up of fiber in the form of cellulose, which we as humans do not breakdown.  Think of it this way, if we eat too many raw cruciferous veggies, our digestive tract has to work overtime in order to breakdown those foods, which requires energy and effort. For some, this may be counter intuitive. Our body gets more exhausted with the breakdown process. Digestion slows, bowel movements are inconsistent and body temperature often drops. Kate Deering, author of “How to Heal Your Metabolism” explains: “The increased fiber leads to more water intake and retention in the gut, which leads to increased stool size which briefly makes us think everything is working great. Soon, however, we start having more intestinal inflammation, decreasing the size of the intestines even more, causing constipation once again, and repeating the cycle. And how do we treat this? Of course, eating even more fiber and drinking more water, which is just making the problem worse!”

  3. Poor gut bacteria: We have healthy bacteria in our gut that helps keep our intestinal tract balanced and our brains well functioning (gut problems like bloating have a strong correlation to an expression in anxiety and depression). However, if we begin removing foods, and replacing them with the same repeated foods, we lack variety. Consuming a variety of “healthy” whole foods (carrots, beets, oranges, fermented foods in particular) boosts our healthy bacteria and as a result improves digestion. A recent dose of antibiotics, can contribute to an imbalance of healthy bacteria. Antibiotics are powerful and wipe clean all the bad bacteria, but also the healthy bacteria we want.  

  4. Poor Vagus Nerve Activation: Digestion actually begins in the brain via the vagus nerve. Therefore, before food even enters our mouth, our brain is already making its own interpretations of what to do next. Its role is signal the muscles in our stomach to contract and migrate food into the small intestine. However a weak or inhibited vagus nerve slows this process.

  5. Imbalance of macronutrients: While I competed, my typical macros were 200-220 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbs and minimal to no fat. This imbalance led to bloat and irregular bowel movements. Too much of one thing is never really a good thing. Keep that in mind when approaching any new nutrition plan.

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Top 6 Tips to Help Reduce Bloating:

  1. Chewing: Did you know that digestive enzymes on your tongue are produced to encourage the breakdown process of food as soon as food touches your tongue? Chewing your food properly can be extremely influential on your digestive health. The more you chew, the more you may notice less cramping and less bloat. A good rule of thumb is to chew tougher foods (steak) upwards of 30 times and softer foods (bananas), at least 15 times. 

  2. Breathing exercises: I would encourage you to set aside time to practice implementing breathing exercises. Breathing efficiently can drastically decrease sympathetic tone and improve digestion. Think of it as you giving your intestines a little massage to help encourage digestion. I would suggest, focusing on attaching intentional breathing to something routine you already do. For instance, every red light, take a nice inhale and then a long exhale (try to exhale twice as long as your inhale).

  3. Water: Play around with your water consumption while eating. In some cases water in combination with food dilutes stomach acids resulting in poor digestion and more discomfort.

  4. Humming: Humming is a great vagus nerve activation exercise. Before your next meal, I’d encourage you to practice humming a tune to your favorite song.

  5. Eating slower: Practice placing your utensils down between each bite. This in itself, will be a good reminder to slow down. Eating too quickly often means we’re not chewing and not allowing our body to properly break down what we’re enjoying.

  6. Vegetables: I would encourage you to play around with reducing your raw vegetable intake. See if you start to notice a difference in bloat and also in how you feel. If however you love veggies, cook them down a bit with some coconut oil or olive oil. This may help aid in the digestion process.

Thank you for reading this! I want to lastly just mention that my suggestions are from my viewpoints, and research that I’ve done personally. I aim to educate you on some alternative ways to look and view health and wellness, in hopes that many of you will find more answers.

References:

https://thrivebyfood.com/stimulate-vagus-nerve-improve-digestion/

http://katedeering.com/2014/01/leafy-greens-or-toxic-food-the-other-side-of-eating-vegetables/