When your favourite pair of pants feel tighter than usual in the morning, you may wonder if it’s because of bloating vs. fat. So, what’s the difference between the two?
“Bloating is when your abdominal region or belly feels full, tight, and has the appearance of being swollen or distended,” says dietician Allison Koch, of the Running Dietitian. It can occur when you eat, drink, or have too much gas. It may feel different from person to person, but it can range from mildly uncomfortable to intensely painful. Thankfully, it’s typically temporary.
Fat, especially if it builds up around the midsection, develops over time and tends to stick around longer. “It feels soft instead of tight,” Koch adds.
But not all body fat is harmful to health. It keeps you warm and stores vitamins like A, D, E, and K, which are essential to organ and tissue function. Fat is also important for the proper functioning of blood sugar, the brain, hormones, and metabolism. Certain types of fat (and where it is stored on the body) can be bad for your health, though.
Here’s how to tell if the bulge over your belly is due to bloat or fat, plus what to do about both.
What is the difference between bloating and fat?
Weight gain due to excess fat shows up on the scale gradually, while weight gain as a result of bloating can show up suddenly, such as overnight or even within the same day, according to Koch. The good news is weight gain from bloating disappears just as quickly. On the other hand, weight gain due to too much fat takes longer to lose.
“Bloat will not generally show up on the scale in large changes unless it is related to something else, such as too much stool. Fat has small day-to-day variations, but takes a long time to change meaningfully even with diet and exercise,” explains Dr Bryan Curtin, a gastroenterologist.
Bloating typically resolves on its own, while you’ll need to get rid of fat by lowering your body percentage of fat through exercise and diet.
How do you know if a swollen stomach is caused by bloating or fat?
The most telling observation is how the distention varies across an entire day. “If it is fat, it will never go down, but if it changes with meals or bowel movements, it is likely to be bloating,” Dr. Curtin says.
Here are other tips to help you figure out whether you are dealing with bloat or excess fat in the stomach region.
Check the mirror in the a.m. “When we wake up in a fasted state, our food has already left our stomach and is probably well into our colon, so we do not get that bloated feeling and look,” says dietician Alex Caspero, the owner of Delish Knowledge. “If you wake up with a stomach that is a good two sizes smaller than when you go to bed, something is definitely going on in your gut.”
Think back to your bathroom activities. “Being backed up causes you to weigh more until your body releases the waste it is holding onto,” says Prof Lisa M. Davis, a clinical consultant in nutrition. This can literally expand your stomach. While every woman’s regular is slightly different, if yours is not on a pretty reliable schedule, it is not regular. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), low fiber intake, PMS, sleep changes, stress, and even traveling can all contribute to constipation, she says.
Dehydration can also cause bloating. “Your pee should be a light lemonade colour. It does not need to be clear or very pale, but it should not look like iced tea or dark lemonade,” says Caspero. If it does, you are dehydrated, which causes bloat via constipation and makes your body hold onto whatever water it has got.
Know your body. “When you gain weight, it is rarely in one area,” says Caspero. It spreads out over your arms, belly, butt, face, thighs, etc. Though you might notice it most in areas where you tend to carry more of your body fat, bloating is all about the abdomen, she says.
Consider your cycle. Throughout the menstrual cycle, changes in female sex hormones, especially estrogen and progesterone, can result in serious water retention. “The fluid can spread around the body, but seems to affect your tummy most of all,” says Davis.
Re-evaluate after meals. “Bloating tends to happen around and after meal times and changes throughout the day. If you eat lunch and feel bloated afterward, but that feeling goes away when you hit the gym, it is likely bloating,” Caspero explains.
What you eat matters too—consuming a lot of carbs or salt can cause tissue to hold onto water, says Davis, noting that just two cups of water weighs one pound. If you are on a low-carb eating plan, you can expect more fluid in your system post-pasta.
What causes bloating in the stomach?
“Most of the time bloating is due to an accumulation of gas in the GI tract. This can be due to a variety of reasons,” says Dr. Curtin, which include the following.
- Chewing a lot of gum
- Eating too quickly
- Having a digestive disease such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or ulcerative colitis
- Drinking a lot of carbonated beverages
- Consuming too many fiber-containing foods
- Being constipated
- Having dairy when you have lactose intolerance
“Medical conditions, such as food allergies, gluten intolerance, infections, or even a bowel obstruction can also cause bloating,” Koch says, adding that certain medications may have bloating as a side effect as well.
This story was first published in womenshealthmag.com.