Why Your Diet Can Make You Bloated (Even With Good Nutrition)
As a contest prep coach and figure competitor, I’m seeing more and more competitors walk around in a constant state of bloat, as well as hearing more and more complaints of discomfort due to digestive issues during a contest prep diet.
I feel lucky that I can throw almost anything at my body and have no negative effects in terms of bloating, gas, or discomfort even after months of strict dieting. But many athletes become sensitive to different variables during a contest prep diet (or any diet for that matter) and it can be difficult to pinpoint the culprit.
I hear many coaches and athletes recommending “solutions” such as laxatives. This is a misguided recommendation that amounts to putting a temporary bandage on the symptom of a real digestive problem. These symptoms are the body’s way of letting you know something isn’t working. Any time a natural process such as digestion becomes compromised, I view that as a warning sign.
I like to think I’m as hard-core as the next competitor, but suffering through pain that’s being induced due to something or somethings within your diet isn’t hard-core. It’s silly and unnecessary.
First Things First
Are you really bloated? For many competitors, lower abdominal fat is the last thing to go, and often I hear clients complaining of “bloat” when it’s more likely to just be a stubborn and isolated fat deposit. If you’re not experiencing any discomfort and your digestion is normal, it’s possible bloating isn’t the issue.
"During a contest prep diet, many competitors transition to a lower-carbohydrate diet and increase their fiber with more vegetables. This can often lead to bloating if the body isn’t prepared for this influx[.]"
But if you’re having discomfort, pressure, constipation, and/or strained bowel movements (or lack thereof), then there’s likely a problem. It’s usually easy to see when someone is bloated during contest prep due to the low levels of body fat and the isolated look of a bloated belly. I have seen my fair share of bikini competitors who are completely lean everywhere else, but look three months pregnant due to digestive issues. Not a cute look, and bloating is more commonly experience in women than in men.2
Potential Culprits for Bloating
When you’re eating a number of different food groups and taking a handful of different supplements every day, it can be a challenge to pinpoint what is causing your issues (and potentially stopping you from proper nutritional absorption and hindering maximum performance). This list describes the most common dietary factors I see in relation to digestive issues in bloating during a contest prep diet:
Too much or too little fiber can lead to the build up of gas in the stomach, which then leads to bloating.3 The American Dietetic Association recommends we get 25-40 grams of fiber daily, but most of us get markedly less. On the other hand, they also say too much fiber may lead to symptoms such as, “diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms such as flatulence, bloating, and abdominal discomfort.”1
Finding a happy medium is key, as well as avoiding any dramatic increases or decrease in fiber intake at one time. If you are making large increases or decreases to the amount of fiber you consume in a day, make these changes slowly to let your body adjust and avoid potential problems.
"In switching to a contest prep diet, you may discover sensitivities to certain foods that you didn’t notice before. "
During a contest prep diet, many competitors transition to a lower-carbohydrate diet and increase their fiber with more vegetables. This can often lead to bloating if the body isn’t prepared for this influx in fiber-rich vegetables. Other athletes struggle for the opposite reason - not getting enough fibrous vegetables in their diet, focusing on consuming adequate protein levels, keeping carbohydrates low, and not meeting daily-recommended values.
Diet Soda and Artificial Sweeteners
For many, diet sodas may be a double-whammy as they include artificial sweeteners, which are not fully absorbable in the digestive process. This can cause bloating, especially in conjunction with the high levels of carbonation, and can produce gas build up in the stomach.2 Unfortunately, if you find yourself sensitive to artificial sweeteners, then low-calorie condiments, flavored supplements, and protein powders may all irritate your digestion and be best left for after the show, if at all.
Too Little Fat and Too Much Protein
A diet too low in fat can lead to problems with constipation and bloating, as fats aid in the stimulus of healthy bowel movements.4 The list of functions and benefits of a diet with adequate fat levels goes way beyond proper digestion, and I encourage all competitors to ensure their fats are at a healthy level during a contest prep diet, women especially.
On top of that, too much protein (all those egg whites!) has been shown to cause issues in regards to gas, bloating, and constipation. This is based on my experience, and each individual’s ability to process high levels of protein may vary.
In switching to a contest prep diet, you may discover sensitivities to certain foods that you didn’t notice before. In eating a limited number of food sources, you may consume several meals of the same foods each day and realize some foods cause you more discomfort than others. In addition, if you are cutting out certain foods, such as dairy, from your daily diet, you may develop a certain level of sensitivity as your body may stop producing the digestive enzymes needed to comfortably consume lactose.5
In my experience, certain food sources can become irritants to different athletes after extended periods of consumption at higher than normal levels. I like to rotate my food sources in order to avoid potential sensitivities developing. As well, I include things like small amounts of dairy in my weekly cheat meals to ensure my body remains able to easily digest all foods.
Food Volume, Sodium, and Water
When it comes to dieting, everyone knows volume is king. So, when we are on “poverty calories,” who of us doesn’t want to eat the most amount possible for the limited calories allotted? But bloating can occur if we are accustomed to small portions or mostly protein- and fat-based meals and we suddenly increase our volume of non-starchy vegetables or other low calorie add-ins. Doing this leads to large portions the stomach isn’t used to and potentially to stomach distension.
"Any time a natural process such as digestion becomes compromised, I view that as a warning sign."
Similarly, changes in water levels (higher or lower) can cause stomach bloating and distention, especially in combination with influxes of sodium that can cause water retention. Consistency is key when it comes to water and salt intake throughout your contest diet, with the exception being any manipulations made strategically before taking the stage in the days leading to the show.
If upon manipulating these variables and attempting to find the reason behind your digestive issues you’re still experiencing regular bloating, you may find relief using a combination of the following digestive aids:
- Digestive Enzymes: Used to aid in the breakdown of foods upon consumption. Make sure your digestive aid includes protease, lipase, and amylase as needed based on your diet. Consume with meals to help digestion.
- Probiotics: Ensure your probiotic includes lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria bifidum to aid in a healthy gut flora. I recommend getting a refrigerated brand or eating raw sauerkraut for a similar effect.
- Fiber Supplement: if you’re not reaching your daily fiber intake through your diet, then consider bringing in a supplement to get adequate intake. Psyllium husk is cheap, tasteless, and makes a great pancake when mixed with egg whites (as long as the egg whites don’t give you bloat!).
Note: If you’re experiencing regular pain and constipation with no relief using any of the above recommendations or the pain is severe, please see a doctor in order to rule out any digestive disorders.
Check out these related articles:
- If You Want to Win, Face Your Fears (Contest Prep Athlete Journal)
- How I "Cheat" My Way to Shredded
- Orthorexia - When "Clean Eating" Goes Too Far
- What's New On Breaking Muscle
1. American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Health Implications of Dietary Fiber. Journal of The American Dietetic Association. 2008, 108 (10): 1716-1731. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2008.08.007
2. Azpiroz, F., & Malagelada, R. Abdominal bloating. Gastroenterology. 2005, 129 (3): 1060-1078. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2005.06.062
3. Mayo Clinic. Bloating, belching and intestinal gas: How to avoid them. 2014.
4. Monastyrsky, K. The ingredients of longevity nutrition.
5. Pohl, D. et al. Lactose malabsorption and intolerance: pathogenesis, diagnosis and treatment. United European Gastroenterology Journal. 2013, 1(3): 151-159. doi: 10.1177/2050640613484463
6. Smeets, A., Margriet., S., and Westerterp-Plantenga. Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. British Journal of Nutrition. 2008, 99: 1316-1321. doi:017/S0007114507877646.
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