The dreaded bloat: It's something we do not look forward to getting when we approach Shark Week. Not only do we feel like we're suddenly 15 pounds heavier and wobbling around like penguins, but the fluctuations in our estrogen levels right before our period hits are a killer. It's tempting to curl up in the fetal position on the couch and wait for the bloating to subside, but there are ways to fight it — and the solution could be right in your kitchen.
But first, let's clarify the difference between water retention and bloating. As Dr. Kim Langdon, an OB-GYN from Parenting Pod, points out, bloat and water retention or loss are related to some extent. Water retention is related to the kidneys, while bloating is related to the gastrointestinal tract.
"Some foods, usually the ones that contain caffeine, xanthones and have high water content, send a message to the kidney to release hormones that prevent the reabsorption of water or to induce secretion of excess water from the kidneys," Langdon tells SheKnows. "That's how we retain water."
As for bloating, "water needs to be reabsorbed from digested food in the GI tract to make stool the right caliber," she says. "With too little water intake, constipation can occur, which increases bloat. Excess gas, or 'bloat,' is produced from the stomach enzymes and the bacteria that digests our food, in addition to gastrointestinal motility. Slowed GI motility increases bloat."
Now that you're well informed on the difference, let's get right into what you should and shouldn't consume to help combat belly bloat.
1. Drink water, cut out alcohol & caffeine
Drinking tons of fluids may be the last thing you want to do, but really, you should drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and minimize the bloat.
"Water aids in digestion, especially in combination with fiber, and enables the body to excrete waste (i.e., salt) helping to ‘de-bloat,'" expert nutritionist and registered dietician Keri Gans tells SheKnows. "While drinking water is highly recommended, there's a few other ways you can incorporate more water into your diet with veggies like cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini, radishes, celery, tomato, green cabbage, eggplant and peppers."
Langdon adds that tomatoes have about 90 percent water content and contain antioxidants such as lycopene, beta-carotene, vitamin C and selenium. "Antioxidants prevent free radicals from damaging blood vessel walls that cause leakage into the tissue, thus reducing local swelling," she says.
Dr. Carolyn Dean, a health, diet and nutrition expert and author of The Magnesium Miracle and The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women's Health, recommends drinking half your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water.
As far as alcohol and caffeine go, stay away!
"Although caffeine is a diuretic, which will make you urinate more, it does not help reduce edema," Dr. Alissia Zenhausern, a naturopathic doctor at NMD Wellness of Scottsdale, tells SheKnows. "Alcohol contains sugar that can lead to an increase in inflammation and swelling."
2. Eat enough potassium
Yep, stock up on bananas!
"Potassium regulates sodium in the body and therefore may reduce water retention," says Gans. "A few foods high in potassium include avocados, pistachios, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, artichokes, fennel, Brussels sprouts and arugula."
Board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Cruise also recommends eating mangoes, tomatoes and nuts.
"When magnesium, potassium and sodium are out of balance, you can get water retention and dehydration at the same time," Dean warns. "The adrenal (stress) glands are the main glands that transport these salts, with potassium and magnesium going inside the cells and sodium outside the cells."
She says that in order to correct fluid retention and dehydration and support your adrenal glands, you need to increase magnesium and potassium by eating dark leafy green vegetables, such as kale, Swiss chard, cucumbers and celery.
Lastly, sweet potatoes are a potassium-rich food. "[They] are also a great source of Vitamin A, which can help combat the underlying causes of edema," says Zenhausern.
3. Avoid salty foods
This seems like an obvious one, right? Avoiding salty foods may help decrease water retention and improve period bloating, says Cruise.
Gans recommends replacing added salt with spices and seasonings. "Excess sodium may cause water retention," she says. "Spices and seasonings like garlic powder, oregano, chili powder and dry mustard will add flavor without resulting in a sodium-induced bloat."
4. Cut down on carbs
"Carbs such as bread, white rice and pasta retain water," Cruise says. "Try to cut down on carbs and your bloat will likely diminish."
Replace carbs with good fats, like avocado and coconut oil, and avoid trans fats.
"Eating a low-carb diet flushes out water by reducing inflammation and glycogen levels," says Dean. "Glycogen/carbs retain water in your liver and muscles, so be sure to hydrate often."
5. Say no to fatty or fried foods but yes to omega-3 fatty acids
"Fatty or fried foods contain omega-6 fatty acids (bad fatty acids) and do not contain the same anti-inflammatory properties as their friends omega-3 fatty acids," says Zenhausern.
Salmon, coconut oil and virgin olive oil all contain omega-3 fatty acids. Zenhausern adds that omega-3 fatty acids directly combat swelling as well as inflammation.
6. Eat plenty of fiber
"Fiber regulates the digestive system and prevents constipation," says Gans. "Foods like ancient grains (quinoa, millet, barley, farro) and whole grain pasta, peas, celery and beets can all help reduce bloating."
Pick up some asparagus, too. Langdon says it has asparagine, an amino acid that's a diuretic and has been known to treat swelling and PMS-related water retention. It also has fiber that helps clean out the GI tracts and reduce bloating.
As for celery, these tasty stalks are high in fiber and have enzymes that act as both a diuretic and a laxative, according to Langdon. "The fiber draws water into the gut that eases gut motility that reduces both bloat and excess water buildup. Celery seed speeds up uric acid excretion and increases the rate of urine production," she says.
7. Grab a few watermelons
Watermelon is the perfect summer fruit — and it'll help rid you of your bloat.
"Watermelon has a very high water content (92 percent) and contains antioxidants along with zeaxanthin and kryptoxanthin," says Langdon. "Citrulline is an amino acid that relaxes blood vessels, which decrease pressure against the walls. This reduced water pressure prevents water from hanging out in the tissue that causes edema, or swelling."
8. Carrots for all!
According to Langdon, carrots are one of the most effective diuretic vegetables.
"Some of the phytochemicals in carrots are lycopene, zeaxanthin and xanthophyll that promote diuresis," she says. "Other diuretic promoting foods are cilantro, parsley, garlic, kale and pineapple."
9. Eat all the citrus fruits — & ginger
Oranges, lemons and limes have minerals and enzymes that cause water release from the kidneys, Langdon says. "They are also acidic, and that reduces the sodium load that causes water retention."
Ginger also contains natural enzymes and minerals that release excess water naturally.
So there you have it — plenty of food options to help you get rid of the bloat and make you feel like yourself again in no time.
A version of this article was originally published in June 2014.