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Got Gas?

Solutions for one of the unfortunate side effects of eating healthy.

By
Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N,
April 1, 2009
Episode #037

Beans really are good for your heart! But the more you eat, the more you….will want to listen to today’s show! Today we’re going to talk about something that’s usually not discussed in polite company: the fact that eating healthy foods can give you gas. I’ve got some tips on how you can eat these good-for-you-foods without being made to sleep on the couch.

Everyone Gets Gas

Just so you know: You’re not the only one. Lots of folks find that when they start eating more healthy foods, like vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains, they start to suffer from certain highly unpleasant digestive side effects. In fact, it seems like the very healthiest foods, like beans and broccoli, are among the worst offenders.

You could simply avoid these foods. But then you’d be missing out on all the great health benefits they offer. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage contain powerful cancer-fighting antioxidants, for example. And beans and whole grains are full of fiber, which helps keep your cholesterol down.

Fiber: a Healthy Habit That Can Backfire

I talked about all the things fiber does for your health in the Benefits of Fiber. But eating more fiber can also have a downside. As humans, we aren’t able to digest fiber on our own, you see. Instead we delegate that chore to certain friendly bacteria that live in our large intestines. As these bacteria break down the fiber from our foods, carbon dioxide gas is produced. If a lot of gas builds up, it leads to a predictable outcome.

I’m not exactly sure why, but our bodies seem to be able to adjust to a higher-fiber diet over time. So one quick and dirty tip is to increase your intake of fiber-rich foods gradually, rather than suddenly, and then keep your intake fairly consistent.

What Kind of Fiber Causes Gas?

Fiber also comes in two types: soluble and insoluble. Each provides its own distinct health benefits, but of the two, soluble fiber is much more likely to produce gas than insoluble fiber.  Incidentally, I have an entire episode devoted to the differences between soluble and insoluble fiber if you want more information.

Oat bran, for example, contains mostly soluble fiber while wheat bran contains more insoluble fiber. So, regular bran cereal or muffins may cause less trouble than oat bran cereal or muffins. And if you’re taking my advice and trying to eat more vegetables, you’ll be glad to hear that the fiber found in leafy greens is mostly the insoluble type. Dried fruits and nuts, on the other hand, contain more soluble fiber.

Most popular fiber supplements, like Metamucil or anything containing psyllium husk, contain mostly soluble fiber. I’ll include a link in the show notes to more information on soluble and insoluble fiber and which foods they are found in.

What Other Foods Cause Gas?

Fiber isn’t the only thing that can cause gas, however. The other, more odiferous culprits are complex natural sugars found in beans, vegetables, and whole grains. Because these particular sugar molecules tend to be large and complicated, they often arrive in the large intestine before they’ve all been completely broken down and absorbed. It’s these remaining sugars that cause the problem. With beans, you get a double-whammy because they not only contain a lot of these complex sugars, but the kind of fiber they contain is mostly the soluble type.

How to Get Rid of Gas

One thing you can do to greatly reduce the amount of sugars that reach the large intestine is to take an over-the-counter product called Beano. It contains a natural enzyme called alpha-galactosidase, which specifically targets these complex sugar molecules, helping to break them down more completely before they get to the large intestine and start whooping it up, as it were. Your body produces alpha-galactosidase, too, but sometimes just not enough to get the job done.

Increase your intake of fiber-rich foods gradually, rather than suddenly, to prevent gas.

You’ll get the best results if you use this product properly. Timing is important; you want to take the Beano with your first bite of food. If you forget and take it after the meal, it will help some but not nearly as much. Don’t add Beano to the food while you’re cooking, however, because the heat will break the enzyme down and inactivate it.

The amount you take is also important. Each dose is intended to cover a single serving of hard-to-digest foods. So, if you’re having a bowl of chili with an order of coleslaw on the side, you might want to double up your dose. 

When properly used, Beano is quite effective and completely safe—except for those with a rare inherited disorder called galactosemia, and these people know who they are. I’ll include a link in the show notes to more information about Beano, which foods it works best on, and how to use it.

Do Antacids and Gas-Ex Get Rid of Gas?

Now, here’s one thing that isn’t likely to help despite its name: Gas-Ex is an over-the-counter remedy which claims to eliminate gas and bloating. The active ingredient, simethicone, can help reduce the amount of trapped air in your stomach, which might reduce belching. But it’s not going to have any effect on gas in the large intestine. Antacids, like Tums or Rolaids, also will have no effect on intestinal gas.

Lactose Intoleranance Can Cause Gas

Finally, there are other things that cause intestinal gas that don’t have anything to do with fiber or complex sugars. If you’re lactose intolerant, for example, you might experience gas after eating dairy products. None of the solutions I’ve talked about today are likely to help. Instead, you’ll want to either avoid dairy, or use a product called Lactaid. Like Beano, Lactaid contains an enzyme that helps break down sugars. But instead of targeting the sugars found in beans and broccoli, it works on the sugar found in milk.

For more on other causes of intestinal gas and suggestions for how to treat them, see the show notes for a link to a good review article. But if it’s simply your healthy diet that’s causing a disruption in your home, office, or carpool, take heart! The tips I’ve given you today should allow you to enjoy all the healthy benefits of beans, legumes, vegetables, and whole grains, penalty free!

Ask the Diva: All About Alli

Q: Can using products like Beano, Lactaid, and Gas-Ex can lower the effectiveness of the fat blocker Alli?

A: Alli works by inhibiting the absorption of fat in your digestive tract and these products shouldn’t interfere with that.

Administrative

This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, with your quick and dirty tips for eating well and feeling fabulous.

These tips are provided for your information and entertainment and are not intended as medical advice. Because everyone is different, please work with your health professional to determine what’s right for you.

f you have a nutrition question for me, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. You can also leave me a voice mail at 206-203-1438.  I can also be found on Twitter.

Have a great day and eat something good for me!

RESOURCES:

Nutrition Diva show on the Benefits of Fiber

Soluble vs. Insoluble Fiber

FAQ on Beano

Controlling Intestinal Gas

Modern Manners Guy on The Manners of Passing Gas

Gas image courtesy of Shutterstock

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