It’s not uncommon to emerge from the most gluttonous time of year feeling a little puffy. Months of piling plates with holiday cuts of meat and carbs drenched in liquid fat finished off with baked sugar a la mode can distend a stomach like that.
However, your bloat, generally a combo platter of gas and water retention, isn’t just a seasonal — or a lady — thing. Statistics show that 70 percent of men suffer from some form of regular belly issue, with constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and excessive flatulence being the most common, all of which extends your stomach to unsightly and uncomfortable proportions. And ridding yourself of it isn’t as easy as sweating or farting it out. Permanent de-bloating entails much more fundamental life changes, particularly as they relate to your diet. Because bloating isn’t a DNA thing; it’s a what-you’re-putting-in-your-stomach-isn’t-good-for-you thing.
Okay, but first things first: Just how bloated can I get? At any given time, most of us are lugging around at least a couple pounds of water weight in addition to varying amounts of weightless, gaseous bloat resulting from eating too fast, drinking carbonated beverages and/or consuming vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage or Brussels sprouts, which contain a complex sugar called raffinose. We don’t have the enzyme in our small intestine that helps break down raffinose, so it gets shipped off to the large intestine for digestion. Bacteria in the large intestine does manage to break down the raffinose, but not without creating a lot of gas in the process — resulting in excess bloating and bellowing, definitive farts.
Where does all that water come from? I’m certainly not drinking the recommended amount every day. Sodium is generally the largest contributor to bloatedness because it needs to bind with water, so consuming it triggers an automatic water-retention response in the body — particularly in the gut. And here’s the really bad news: Sodium is lurking everywhere, and many times, you don’t even know it.
“Excess sodium is often hidden in the food supply,” says L.A. dietician and nutritionist David Wiss with Nutrition in Recovery. “For example, most people wouldn’t think that a muffin could have up to 500 milligrams of salt because it’s baked in. Similarly, a slice of pizza can have 500 milligrams of sodium because it’s in the white bread; it’s in the tomato sauce; it’s naturally occurring in the cheese and it’s in the pepperoni or sausage.”
He adds, “Across the board, restaurants use way more sodium than recommended — it usually ends up in sauces, soups and on meat. Something as innocent as fish tacos may have been soaked in a sodium solution before even more salt is added in the final stage of cooking. The result is that we’re regularly served meals with 5,000 milligrams of sodium, when dietary recommendations are between 2,000 and 2500 milligrams for an entire day.”
Is that why I have all this gas, too? Mostly. Though gut bacteria can have something to do with it as well. “The Western diet has led to significant imbalance in gut bacteria,” Wiss says. “As more people are developing this imbalance, there’s more potential for less desirable bacteria to produce gasses.”
So just start farting? And don’t stop for a good, long time? Not at all. It sounds counterintuitive, but what you really need to do is drink more water. “Most people are dehydrated,” Wiss explains. “When your body’s not getting enough water, there are certain hormonal changes that signal to your body that it needs to store more water and be more conservative. Conversely, drinking more water — between 2 and 3 liters per day — tells the body it no longer needs to store as much. I’ve had chronically dehydrated clients end up losing a significant amount of weight because their body release stored extracellular water once it got the signal it was okay to do so.”
Can I speed up the process by taking a shvitz or doing yoga at an insanely high heat? In short, yes. “That’s why most men report loving steam rooms, saunas or hot yoga — because they end up sweating out pounds of extracellular water and feel much lighter.” This, of course, is highly anecdotal, but I lose 5 to 7 pounds every time I do Bikram yoga — 26 postures in 110 degree heat. All that extracellular water weight wrung out from every gland and organ in my body individually.
Wow! So 5–7 pounds per day, three days a week for two weeks, should mean I’ll lose at least 30 pounds in less than a month? Not even close. It doesn’t add up to an extreme weight loss because our bodies let us know that we need to add all that water right back. For me, the message comes in the form of an unrelenting “fuck you” headache — that only goes away with Advil I chase down with 5–7 pounds of water. “As soon as we consume water, carbohydrates and sodium, the water is stored back on the body,” Wiss explains. Or an even simpler explanation: “The sauna [or hot yoga] weight loss is temporary because it’s water weight, not fat weight.”
Shit, does that mean what I think it means? Pretty much. Like with most weight loss, there’s no shortcut. Or at least no shortcut that tastes as good as a cheese, sausage and sodium pizza. And so, to keep the bloat off permanently, Wiss suggests that you “minimize exposure to processed foods and watch your sodium intake by cooking foods at home. Eat lots of high fiber foods regularly to keep your stomach strong and able to face the challenges of digestion. Drink 2–3 liters of water per day, and engage in regular physical activity that breaks a small sweat rather than forced and excessive sweat.”
You’re telling me there are no easy answers whatsoever? Well, it could be all in your head — as opposed to, you know, your stomach. Wiss notes that sometimes the feeling of bloatedness is more mental than physical. “Many people have a general discomfort in their skin and are hypersensitive to mild body-image disturbances. We call it body dissatisfaction. Sometimes there’s an overall discomfort that is perceived as bloated-ness when it’s actually a phantom perception.” At least to me, though, that seems far worse — and quite frankly, more challenging to overcome — than making sure I’m filling a two-liter bottle with water rather than Diet Coke every day.