Is It Belly Fat or Bloating?

Is It Belly Fat or Bloating?

(Last Updated On: April 3, 2019)


Is It Belly Fat or Bloating?

You glance in the mirror and see your tummy sticking out. Uh! Oh! You wonder if you’ve gained a few pounds. Yet, you check the scale and you’re still the same weight. It might not be fat after all. You might be suffering from a relatively common problem among women – abdominal bloating.

Bloating vs. Belly Fat

But how do you know if it’s bloating or belly fat? Bloating comes and goes and is usually most obvious at the end of the day. You wake up with a stomach that’s completely flat and look like you’re a few months pregnant by the end of the day.

If you’re unsure if it’s bloating, use a tape measure to measure your tummy right around the navel when you wake up in the morning and again at the end of the day. If there’s a big difference, it’s bloating, not tummy fat. If you’re bloated, you may experience other symptoms such as gas, tummy tightness, and your stomach may make funny, high-pitched sounds that embarrass you when you’re in public.

So, you’re convinced that your tummy is sticking out because you’re bloated and not due to body fat. What’s causing this frustrating problem?

First, if bloating is a new symptom for you, get it checked out by a health professional. Serious health problems, like ovarian cancer, liver failure, kidney problems, and other health issues can cause bloating. If everything checks out, your bloating can likely be explained by one of these factors:

·       Food Intolerances

·       Excess air swallowing

·       Water retention

·       Constipation


Let’s look at each of these factors in more depth.

Food Intolerances

Food intolerances and sensitivities are probably the most common cause of bloating and abdominal distension that comes and goes. If bloating is due to a food sensitivity, you’ll likely experience other symptoms such as abdominal cramping, nausea, or diarrhea. You might also have frequent headaches and fatigue.

Before assuming your symptoms are due to food intolerance, make sure your doctor tested you for celiac disease, a condition where your intestines become inflamed when you consume gluten-containing foods. That’s a cause of bloating you don’t want to miss.

Probably the most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance. When you have lactose intolerance, your intestines can’t break down lactose, a sugar in dairy foods. Even though you can’t break it down, bacteria in your gut can. When bacteria feast on lactose, they produce gases that cause bloating, diarrhea, & abdominal discomfort. About 30 million Americans over the age of 20 have some degree of lactose intolerance.

Another relatively common cause of bloating is sensitivity to fermentable oligo-,di-, monosaccharides and polyols or FODMAPs. These are short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols found naturally in some foods but also in additives manufacturers use in processed foods. You also find FODMAPs in certain fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy foods, and packaged foods. In fact, experts now believe that many people with irritable bowel syndrome are sensitive to FODMAPs.

What if you suspect that you have a food intolerance? Try an elimination diet for three weeks. If you suspect lactose intolerance, purge all dairy products from your diet for a 3-week period. If your symptoms improve, lactose intolerance is the likely culprit. If not, download a list of foods that contain FODMAPs online and do a FODMAP elimination diet. If that doesn’t help eliminate gluten from your diet for 3 weeks to see how you respond. You could have gluten sensitivity even if you don’t have celiac disease.

Yes, it takes time and experimentation to pinpoint a food intolerance but it’s worth in terms of your health. Elimination diets are a helpful tool.

Excessive Air Swallowing

Some people gulp air, also known as aerophagia, and aren’t consciously aware of it. If you’re stressed out or anxious, you may be doing this without knowing it. If the air becomes trapped, it causes your abdomen to distend. Typically, if you’re an air swallower, you’ll also have problems with frequent burping. If you don’t, the air you’re swallowing will typically be released as flatulence. It’s going to come out one way or the other! To reduce air swallowing:

·       Don’t drink carbonated beverages.

·       Learn to breathe properly- deeply from your abdomen as opposed to shallowly from your diaphragm.

·       Avoid talking when you eat.

·       Don’t chew gum.

·       Eat slowly.


Water Retention

You’re probably familiar with the bloating and water retention you get a week before a period. As you enter peri-menopause, your hormone levels often fluctuate wildly. These hormonal fluctuations, particularly a transient rise in estrogen, can cause your body to hold onto water. If you’re post-menopausal, water retention is a less common cause of bloating. If you’re having it, make sure there’s not another cause for your symptoms. During peri-menopause and early menopause, your cortisol level may rise. When cortisol goes up, you tend to hold onto fluid. Stress and lack of sleep can make it worse.

What can you do about water retention? Cut back on salt and sodium-rich foods. Add more potassium-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables, to your diet and eliminate processed foods. A number of packaged and processed foods contain far too much sodium. Some of the worst offenders are processed meat, canned foods, and condiments. Don’t forget about fast food and restaurant offerings. They’re loaded with salt! The other objective is to get your cortisol level down. Make sure you’re:

·       Getting enough sleep. (at least 7 hours a night)

·       Aren’t overtraining. Don’t overdo the cardio and give yourself a full rest day every week.

·       Using a technique for stress management. (meditation, yoga, deep  breathing, etc.)

·       Not dieting or restricting calories excessively.

·       Not skipping meals.


Some medications can also cause fluid retention. Among the most common are prednisone (and other steroids), birth control pills, and hormone replacement therapy.


Sometimes bloating and abdominal distension is a product of constipation. Are you getting enough fiber in your diet? If you’re experiencing chronic constipation and bloating, get it checked out. It’s important to rule out colon polyps or a tumor. If everything checks out, slowly add more fiber to your diet. Don’t do it too quickly since a sudden increase in dietary fiber can worsen abdominal bloating.

The Bottom Line

Now you know the most common causes of bloating. If it’s a persistent problem, you should always get it checked out. Otherwise, simple dietary and lifestyle changes can make a difference.



Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013;11(1)

Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2008 Jul; 36(3): 152–159.doi:  10.1097/JES.0b013e31817be928.

MedLine Plus. “Lactose intolerance”


Related Articles By Cathe:

5 Common Reasons Women Experience Abdominal Bloating

Tummy Bloating? It Could Be the Fructose in Your Diet


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