Here’s How to Tell the Difference Between Bloating and Fat
If you suddenly notice your stomach is larger than usual, it’s only natural to wonder if you’re dealing with bloating vs. fat. Could your GI system be reacting to something you ate or have you simply put on a little more weight around your midsection? The answer isn’t always obvious.
After all, the end result is the same: Your waistline is larger than it typically is. However, experts say there are some key factors that can help you determine whether you’re dealing with bloating or fat.
Why does this matter? Bloating is an issue that can usually be resolved with dietary changes. However, in some situations, it can be a sign of an underlying health issue. Fat build-up around your midsection may simply be the result of changes in your eating plan and exercise routine, but it can also be a signal that you’ll need to make some tweaks to improve your health.
Ultimately, determining if you’re dealing with bloating or fat can help you figure out next steps, so you can emerge a happier, healthier you.
Of course, you’re not born knowing how to the tell the difference between bloating and fat. Here’s what you need to know to figure out what’s going on around your midsection, and how to make a change that works for you.
What typically causes bloating?
There are a few different things that can lead to bloating. You may simply have bloating as the result of eating too many fibrous foods than you’re used to, says Rudolph Bedford, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
But bloating can also be a sign of an intolerance or food sensitivity. “Lactose intolerance is a common issue that I would think about,” Dr. Bedford says. Health conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, Celiac disease, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) are also linked to bloating, he says.
Bloating can also happen after you eat too much salt or before your period is due, says Ashkan Farhadi, M.D., a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif. And there are more potential causes. “Some people swallow air when they speak, leading to bloating,” he says. “Gas can also form because of interaction of acid and alkaline in the stomach.”
In rare cases, bloating can be caused by colon or ovarian cancer—although the other causes mentioned above are much more likely, says Randy Meisner, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Spectrum Health.
What usually causes fat around the midsection?
There are also a few reasons why you may notice more fat around your midsection. “Abdominal fat may be caused by a variety of factors including hormones—typically post-menopausal hormone changes, specifically the loss of estrogen, can increase the storage of fat in the visceral or abdominal area—eating an excess of calories, not being physically active, genes, stress, and stress eating,” says Deborah Cohen, R.D.N., an associate professor in the Department of Clinical and Preventive Nutrition Sciences at Rutgers University.
Sleep deprivation and smoking can also cause you to build up excess fat around your midsection, she says.
Bloating vs. fat: How to tell the difference
It’s not always easy to tell if you’re dealing with bloating or fat in the moment, but experts say there are a few signs that can tip you off. “When people gain weight and actual fat tissue, they can usually feel it in the girth,” Dr. Meisner says. “You can actually grab it and feel it.” In many cases, it’s likely that you’ll also develop more fat in other areas of your body as well, like around your thighs and butt, he says.
With bloating, you can usually feel air in your stomach. “It has more of a sound if you press on it,” Dr. Meisener says. You’ll also usually notice more gas if you’re dealing with bloat, Dr. Bedford says. “You may have cramping in your abdomen, too,” he says.
Timing is a factor as well, Dr. Farhadi says. If you notice your stomach tends to become more round after meals or the puffiness seems to come and go, it’s more likely you’re dealing with bloating. However, if your rounder stomach is consistent and you’ve been dealing with it for a while, it’s more likely to be caused by fat.
What to do if you have bloating
If you’re dealing with bloating, experts recommend that you first revisit your diet. “Try to figure out whether you’re intolerant to certain foods,” Dr. Bedford says.
A good starting point is to remove dairy from your diet and see how you feel, Dr. Bedford says. If it doesn’t seem to make a difference after a week or two, you can add it back in. However, if you notice less gas after you remove it, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about the possibility that you may be lactose intolerant.
It’s also a good idea to take a closer look at how much fiber you’re eating. If it’s on the higher end (more than 25 grams a day for women and more than 38 grams a day for men), you may want to scale back and see how you feel, Dr. Bedford says.
Other lifestyle modifications to consider, according to Cohen:
Drink less carbonated beverages
Eat and drink more slowly
Chew less gum
You can also consider taking a medication like Beano to decrease the amount of gas produced from the foods you eat, Farhadi says. (However, keep in mind that this isn’t solving the underlying issue—it’s just helping with the symptom.)
How to get rid of fat
If you notice more fat around your midsection and it doesn’t bother you, that’s just fine. But if you’re concerned about it and you want to lose it, Cohen says there are a few things you can do.
Exercise more. “Increasing physical activity can’t be stressed enough,” she says. “In the U.S., Americans do not move enough.” In case you’re not familiar with them, the recommendations are to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. “There are simple ways to increase activity that do not involve joining a gym or starting a running program—for instance, parking farther from the store, taking the stairs, vacuuming or sweeping the house, and walking the dog,” Cohen says.
Try to take in less calories. “Eating fewer calories also can’t be stressed enough,” Cohen says. “In this, country our portion sizes are much too large.” She suggests using smaller plates, sharing meals when eating out, and focusing on hunger cues. At the same time, try to eat less ultra-processed foods and load your plate with fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.
If you’ve tried that and you aren’t getting anywhere, consider talking to a registered dietitian—they can help you craft an eating plan that works for you.
Finally, if you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with bloating or fat, or you’re concerned that your larger-than-usual stomach is a sign of an underlying health condition, talk to your primary care physician. They should be able to run some tests to help figure out what’s going on with your health.
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