Dietitians Reveal Foods That Make You Retain Water and Bloat Up

Wood table with a milk pitcher and glass and bowl of cream

Magone / Getty Images

Eradicating belly bloat and water retention 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).

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. Scroll on for insight from two registered dieticians into what foods can make you bloated and what to eat instead.

Meet the Expert

  • Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and founder of the lifestyle and media company Nutritious Life.
  • Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, is the CEO of NY Nutrition Group and a medical expert board member for Eat This Not That.

Carbonated Sodas

Close up of soda carbination

Jonathan Knowles / Getty Images

"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." On top of that, diet sodas are full of artificial sweeteners, which on their own can cause bloating and stomach irritation.

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)

White and brown sugar with spoons

Martin Barraud / Getty Images

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." Moskovitz adds that artificial sweeteners can also destroy the healthy gut bacteria that work to keep things moving smoothly and can have a laxative effect.

What to Eat Instead:

Stevia and monk fruit are slightly better sweetener options for those trying to cut back on added sugar. Maple syrup also works as a sugar replacement for a number of recipes.

Cruciferous Veggies

Cauliflower and broccoli close up

Hüseyin Günerergin / EyeEm / Getty Images

"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 non cruciferous and highly hydrating veggies like cucumber, green beans, and zucchini," Glassman says.

Onions

Onion chopped in half on a round cutting board with a knife

robynmac / Getty Images

Moskovitz notes that onions are usually on the top of the list of bloat-producing foods. "Onions add a ton of flavor, but there may be a price to pay," she explains. "That is because they contain a significant amount of fructans, a type of carbohydrate that is more difficult to break down in our GI tract."

What to Eat Instead:

Other flavorful foods like carrots, chives, and scallions make a great replacement for onions, however, Moskovitz warns that chives and scallions could still be bothersome to some people.

Garlic

Garlic cloves on a cutting board

photosimysia / Getty Images

Like onions, garlic also contains fructans, which attract gas and air into the intestines. Moskovitz suggests using garlic-infused olive oil by sautéing the garlic in oil and removing it before adding other ingredients.

What to Eat Instead:

"To prevent bloat without diminishing flavor, you can use other seasonings, including salt, pepper, or turmeric, and fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, thyme, and cilantro," suggests Moskovitz.

Dairy

Wood table with a milk pitcher and glass and bowl of cream

Magone / Getty Images

"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." According to Moskovitz, even if you're not diagnosed with lactose intolerance, lactose can cause bloat and other gastrointestinal issues. She suggests reaching for lower lactose dairy like yogurt and hard cheeses or replacing them with dairy-free options.

What to Eat Instead:

Try alternative options like milk, yogurt, and cheese made from almonds, coconut, rice, soy, or flax seeds.

Starchy Foods

Bread slices on a marble slab

Lindsay Upson / Getty Images

According to Glassman, starches (particularly the processed ones) like cereal, pasta, bread, and crackers, hold on to water, which means your body will, too. Moskovitz adds that many of these starches are also filled with gluten. "Not everyone has a gluten sensitivity, but if you're someone that experiences frequent bloating it can definitely be a culprit," she says.

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.

Beans

Beans in a bowl

Larissa Veronesi / Getty Images

Beans are a highly nutritious food, but some people may have a difficult time digesting the certain types of carbohydrates they contain. "These are fermentable fibers that trap excess air and gas in the lower abdomen," Moskovitz explains. "For that reason, if you have a sensitive stomach, it may be best to limit, or better yet, swap them for an easier-digested food."

What to Eat Instead:

"Almost any recipe that calls for beans can likely taste great with the addition of rice, potatoes, cauliflower, pasta, or carrots instead," Moskovitz advises.

Seltzer Water

Carbonated Water

Johner Images / Getty Images

Anything with carbonation is infused with tiny air bubbles. As Moskovitz puts it: "These air bubbles then move through your digestive tract after you swallow them. It is like injecting air right into your belly." Yikes!

What to Drink Instead:

For some, plain water is quite simply too "boring" and many won't drink enough of it if it's not spruced up in some way. Try swapping the bubbles for natural flavor with infusions of lemon, lime, berries, or mint. However, be mindful that citrus fruits can be irritating in the stomach as well.

Lentils

Lentil soup in a bowl

Cris Cantón / Getty Images

Another kind of legume, lentils contain similar soluble fibers to beans. "While they are the major culprit behind digestive discomfort, these fibers also act as prebiotics that feed our healthy gut bacteria: probiotics," says Moskovitz. "If it doesn't cause significant side effects, you can try enjoying lentils in smaller portions."

What to Eat Instead:

If the digestive discomfort is unavoidable, try swapping lentils for diced zucchini, carrots, peas, couscous, quinoa, rice, or potatoes.

Beer

Glass of beer on a wooden plank

LauriPatterson / Getty Images

The struggle of beer bloat isn't exactly a well-kept secret—and the belly-ballooning culprit is two-fold. First, there's the carbonation, which Moskovitz points to as the primary cause of bloating as the air gets trapped in the lower stomach area. "Additionally, if you have a sensitivity to gluten, beer may introduce this offender into your system," she explains.

What to Drink Instead:

Wine can be used as a replacement for beer for both cooking and drinking.

Nuts

Bowl of mixed nuts

Barcin / Getty Images

"Nuts like almonds, cashews, and peanuts are delicious and nutritious," Moskovitz notes. But when consumed in specific quantities they can create stomach bloating. According to Moskovitz, eating more than 2-3 tablespoons at a time can put more pressure on your system.

What to Eat Instead:

Keep the snacking down to fewer than 2-3 tablespoons of nuts per sitting and add fresh fruit, seeds, or dry cereal to nut mixes to ease their impact on the stomach.

Chewing Gum

Pack of chewing gum on a blue background

Barcin / Getty Images

The same way that consumption of air causes bloating with carbonated drinks, gum-chewing also introduces air into the stomach, says Moskovitz. "The constant chewing causes you to swallow excessive amounts of air in a short period of time." Similarly, drinking through straws can lead to extra air-swallowing.

What to Eat Instead:

"If you need something to chew on try eating something nutritious like fresh fruit or veggies," suggests Moskovitz. "You can also see if sucking candies, tea, or a fresh mint gets the job done."

Acidic Foods

Citrus fruits on a wooden cutting board

DjordjeDjurdjevic / Getty Images

"Acidic foods such as citrus fruits, vinegar, tomato products, and chocolate can all lead to bloat as well," Moskovitz says, adding that the more acidic the food is, the more it aggravates the stomach lining. "This can throw off all areas of the digestive system and the end result is stomach distention," she explains. Citrus fruits like lemon, lime, grapefruit, and oranges are more likely to irritate the stomach than other fruit options with lower acidity.

What to Eat Instead:

Bananas, berries, and melons like watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew are low-acid fruits that are much easier to digest. Tomato sauce can be partially neutralized with a little baking soda or grated carrots, or swap it all together with pesto or olive oil for pasta dishes.

Corn

Four corncobs with herb and lemon garnishes

Claudia Totir/ Getty Images

Corn is yet another food containing certain difficult-to-digest carbs as well as insoluble fiber. In fact, 7-10% of corn carbohydrates are malabsorptive. "It may not be as severe as other foods, but corn can certainly be a problem for some," explains Moskovitz. "If you notice you do feel more bloated after eating corn then it is possible you have a slight intolerance or potential sensitivity."

What to Eat Instead:

"In that case," Moskovitz concludes, "you easily sub out corn and sub in cauliflower, pasta, rice, or potatoes in most corn-based recipes."

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. US National Library of Medicine: Genetics Home Reference. Lactose Intolerance. Updated August 17, 2020.

  6. 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.

  7. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. "Gas and Bloating." September, 2006.

Related Stories