Eradicating water retention and belly bloat are the two easiest ways to feel lighter with minimal effort. This is precisely why the idea of de-bloating is so appealing; you can actually see a difference in your body in just a matter of days without resorting to long-term dietary changes or even hitting the gym. In fact, bloating and water retention have everything to do with what you eat and drink (and certain supplements can help, too). For insight into the foods that cause bloating and water retention, we tapped registered dietitian and nutritionist Keri Glassman.
Meet the Expert
Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and founder of lifestyle and media company, Nutritious Life.
Causes of Water Retention
Water retention is often the result of eating too much salt, processed, high-sodium foods and not drinking enough water. Ingredients like monosodium glutamate, or MSG, baking soda, sodium nitrite, sodium saccharin, and sodium benzoate have just as much of a role in inducing bloating as plain table salt. In order to alleviate water retention, try cutting out processed foods, limiting your daily sodium intake to 2300 milligrams or less a day (or one teaspoon of salt), and seasoning your food with other herbs and spices like garlic, ginger, dill, oregano, paprika, cumin pepper, onion, and sage instead.
Foods That Contribute to Water Retention
"This one’s a no-brainer to take a pass on," Glassman says. "The bubbles found in carbonated beverages may be oh so satisfying, but they can also build up in your stomach, causing uncomfortable bloating and gas."
What to drink instead: It is possible to get your caffeine fix and a flat belly at the same time. "Opt for something un-carbonated but just as delicious and with major antioxidant benefits, like Argentinian yerba mate," Glassman says.
Non-nutritive Sweeteners (Sorbitol, Erythritol, Xylitol)
Sugar alcohols are a bloating culprit. According to Glassman, "sugar alcohols have a different chemical structure than actual sugar that affects the way the body metabolizes them. Sugar alcohols are considered low-digestible carbohydrates because they’re either partially absorbed in the small intestine or not absorbed at all, and this means they can cause some unpleasant GI symptoms and major bloating."
What to eat instead: Don't cut corners. If you're craving something sweet, go for the real deal, but enjoy it as an occasional indulgence in moderation.
"While I absolutely recommend these veggies as part of a healthy diet, on the days you’re trying to really cut the bloat, these are some veggies to steer clear of," Glassman says. Due to their complex sugars and high fiber content, it’s harder for your body to digest them, which can cause unwanted gas. Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower are the most common offenders.
What to eat instead: "When trying to cut the bloat, opt for noncruciferous and highly hydrating veggies like cucumber, green beans, and zucchini," Glassman says.
"As we age, we lose the enzyme needed to break down and process milk sugars and the side effect is often bloating," Glassman explains. "Try ditching milk, yogurt, and cheese and see how you feel. If you do notice a positive difference, try adding dairy foods back one at a time, starting with yogurt, to see which dairy product might be the offender."
What to eat instead: Try alternative milks, like almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk, and swap butter and sour cream for avocado.
According to Glassman, starches (particularly the processed ones) like cereal, pasta, bread, and crackers, hold on to water, which means your body will, too.
What to eat instead. "You can go without the toast and pasta, or choose whole grain and less processed options like brown rice instead of white, root vegetables, and oats as your source of carbohydrates," Glassman advises.
Rakova N, Kitada K, Lerchl K, et al. Increased Salt Consumption Induces Body Water Conservation and Decreases Fluid Intake. J Clin Invest. 2017;127(5):1932-1943.doi:10.1172/JCI88530
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Get the Facts: Sodium and the Dietary Guidelines. Updated October 2017.
Fernandes CEF, Scapinello J, Bohn A, et al. Phytochemical Profile, Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activity of Extracts Obtained from Erva-Mate () Fruit Using Compressed Propane and Supercritical CO. J Food Sci Technol. 2017;54(1):98-104.doi:10.1007/s13197-016-2440-4
Mäkinen KK. Gastrointestinal Disturbances Associated with the Consumption of Sugar Alcohols with Special Consideration of Xylitol: Scientific Review and Instructions for Dentists and Other Health-Care Professionals. Int J Dent. 2016;2016:5967907.doi:10.1155/2016/5967907
US Department of Health and Human Services: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & Causes of Gas in the Digestive Tract. Updated July 2016.
US National Library of Medicine: Genetics Home Reference. Lactose Intolerance. Updated August 17, 2020.
Osterberg KL, Pallardy SE, Johnson RJ, Horswill CA. Carbohydrate Exerts a Mild Influence on Fluid Retention Following Exercise-Induced Dehydration. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2010;108(2):245-250.