There's no shame in showing off your midriff in a bikini or crop top—ever. But it doesn't feel good to bare your belly when you're uncomfortably bloated.
Common culprits are constipation, fluid retention, and gas from swallowed air and the byproducts of digestion, all of which are easy enough to sort out.
For starters: Look out for foods that are likely to cause tummy trouble and reach for belly-flattening foods instead. And as always, listen to your body. Everyone reacts differently to different foods.
1. Instead of diet breads, eat regular whole-grain bread.
Breads, buns, and wraps that are labeled "light," "low-calorie," or "low-carb," might appear to be smart options for calorie-counters. But the truth is that these foods are only low in calories because they're made up of fiber that the body can't digest and any calories they contribute aren't accounted for on nutrition labels. Diet breads won't help you slim down—they will fill your gut with gas and actually promote bloating.
If you're watching your carbs or calories, opt for 100 percent whole-wheat bread—the fewer ingredients, the better!—and stick to the recommended serving size. To hedge your bets, you can even reach for breads made with ingredients like oats, corn, rice, potato flour, and quinoa, which are generally gentler on the digestive system than wheat (particularly if you have a gluten allergy or intolerance). Or even better: Skip whole-grain breads and go with actual whole grains such as quinoa or rice.
2. Instead of deli meats and salads, eat a whole cutlet.
Deli meats (and mayo-drenched tuna or chicken salads) can be loaded with sodium, ingredients that make your body retain water, and promote bloating and puffiness, warns Felice Schnoll-Sussman, MD, a gastroenterologist and the director of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. When given the option, choose a slab of grilled chicken breast or fish fillet instead of processed deli meats and tuna salad. And don't eat all the meat—the body can only digest so much protein (think 4 to 6 ounces) at one time, and nothing can save you from the bloat triggered by overeating. (Sorry!)
3. Instead of soft cheese, eat hard cheese.
In the dairy department, soft cheeses (including cream cheese, cottage, ricotta, and sour cream, which isn't really a cheese, but still) tend to contain the most tummy-troubling lactose, a milk sugar that isn't specifically called out on nutrition labels. (You can estimate the amount of lactose in a food by looking at the grams of sugar, which should be listed.)
Sub any cheese you'd typically spread or spoon for solid, aged cheese like cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss. They tend to contain less lactose. And if you're craving something creamy, William Chey, MD, a professor at the University of Michigan and advisor to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, recommends plain or Greek yogurt or Greek yogurt-based spread.
4. Instead of regular chips, eat popped chips.
Eating a lot of greasy foods can delay stomach emptying, which can trigger acid reflux and bloating that makes you feel excessively full and uncomfortable, Dr. Chey says. Because your body digests fat more slowly than other nutrients, you'll be stuck with this sensation. Baked and popped chips go down much easier, as do fats that come from plants as opposed to animals. (It's one reason why you digest a salad dressed in olive oil more quickly than, say, a bacon cheeseburger.) If constipation plagues you, you can also try unsalted popcorn, which contains fiber that can help get things moving. Just wash it down with plenty of water and limit yourself to a couple of cups—adding too much fiber to your diet too quickly will make you feel bloated every time.
5. Instead of pistachios and cashews, eat almonds.
Almonds (and peanuts!) contain carbs that are easier to digest than the ones in some other nuts like pistachios and cashews. (If you suffer from excessive bloating or gas, a diet that's low in these carbs can help.) Make sure the almonds and peanuts are unsalted to avoid water retention.
6. Instead of healthy-sounding snack bars and cereals, choose ones made with the fewest, least-processed ingredients.
Even healthy-sounding cereals can contain natural sweeteners such as chicory root or inulin, ingredients that can trigger gas and residual bloating.
When whole foods aren't available, opt for bars made mostly of whole ingredients (like nuts instead of processed grains). It's a good sign when the naked eye can see actual nuts or cereal grains intact, and when products contain mostly soluble fiber as opposed to insoluble fiber. (Fiber content is often broken down into these categories on nutrition labels.)
Even if you grab "the right" bar on the go, you'll benefit from taking your time with it, chewing until the food reaches the consistency of applesauce or pudding. Digestion begins in the mouth, and proper chewing can help your body do its thing so you experience less gas and bloating, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman says.
7. Instead of soy milk, drink unsweetened almond milk.
If you're sensitive to lactose, you might think that any alternative would beat cow's milk. But soy milk is made from soybeans. The body absorbs these bad boys poorly and they can end up fermenting in your colon, creating gas that makes your belly balloon.
Because soy milk contains more liquid than straight-up beans, a splash of it in your coffee won't do the average person any harm. However, a few of bowls of cereal with soy milk—particularly sweetened varieties—can lead to problems in people with particularly sensitive stomachs. So opt for nut milks when you can, and make sure they're unsweetened.
8. Instead of low-calorie yogurt, eat plain Greek yogurt with fruit.
Low-calorie yogurts (and dairy-based frozen desserts) tend to contain artificial or natural sweeteners like chicory root and maltitol that lead to gas—on top of the lactose that already bothers some people. A telltale sign that any dairy product is likely to irritate your gut: The nutrition label lists fiber or sugar alcohols, which don't naturally occur in dairy foods. â€‹Plain Greek yogurt contains fewer ingredients, even when you add fruit to the mix. In terms of frozen desserts, sorbet, and sherbet are your best bets for naturally low calorie options.
9. Instead of broccoli and cauliflower, eat bell peppers, carrots, and cucumbers.
Generally speaking, veggies are the perfect flat-belly foods. They contain fiber that comes naturally packaged with water—a combo that can fend off constipation when eaten in moderation, explains Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian nutritionist and instructor at Mayo Clinic.â€‹ That said, some produce creates more gas than others, so choose your crudités wisely. Experts agree that broccoli and cauliflower are the worst offenders, but peppers and carrots tend to be less bloating.
10. Instead of hummus or sugar-free dressing, choose basic dips and condiments.
Bean dips like hummus, which is made of gas-causing garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), can bloat you up—and the same goes for lentils, black beans, and peas, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman says. Meanwhile, sugar-free dressings and dips often contain stomach-irritating artificial sweeteners. Processed spreads can also contain lots of salt, while simple condiments made with mustard, tahini, pesto, oil and vinegar, relish, salsa, or unsalted nut butter tend to make better choices.
11. Instead of watermelon, eat cantaloupe.
Like veggies, fruits contain fiber and water that aid in digestion. But fruits that get their natural sweetness from fructose alone are more likely to bother your stomach than fruits naturally sweetened by fructose and glucose, Dr. Chey says.
One example is watermelon, but don't let its high water content trick you: It's all fructose. The safest fruits to snack on include bananas, most berries, grapes, lemons, limes, and pineapples, while stone fruits, apples, blackberries, and canned fruits are more problematic. Listen to your body. If the fruit doesn't bother you, by all means, keep chomping on it.â€‹
12. Instead of onion and garlic, season with ginger.
Many people are unknowingly sensitive to the fructans (sugars) found in onions and garlic, which can seriously upset your stomach, according to Dr. Chey. Meanwhile, an alternative such as ginger can actually combat inflammation—and tastes delicious in teas, stir fries, salad dressings, and smoothies, according to Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. Turmeric, cumin, and cinnamon can also have anti-inflammatory effects, Zeratsky says.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.