Here’s how to tell if you’re experiencing bloating or belly fat – and what you can do about it

By | March 17, 2024

Woman looking in the mirror wondering if she has bloating or belly fat

If you look in the mirror and notice that your belly is a little bigger than it used to be, it can be a real confidence boost. It can also be uncomfortable if what you are wearing is too tight as this does not take into account the new protrusion.

Sometimes clothes fit tighter due to weight gain. Other times it’s abdominal distension, a fancy term for bloating. In either case, you probably want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Here, registered dietitians share how to tell the difference between bloat and fat, and how to get rid of both.

Related: Do you want to lose weight? Here are 16 actually doable ways to do it quickly and safely

How to tell the difference between bloating and belly fat

Part of what makes it difficult to tell the difference between bloating and belly fat is that both become more common with age. “As we age, digestive processes slow down, stomach acid production begins to decrease, intestinal motility slows, and even the stomach’s ability to expand and contract changes. These changes can result in slower digestion and incomplete digestion of food before it passes to the intestines, which can be a very likely cause of bloating,” says Alex Oskian, MS, RDNa registered dietitian and online nutrition coach at Working Against Gravity.

In terms of belly fat, Oskian says this may also become more likely with age, as a person’s activity level often decreases with age, which can contribute to an increase in body fat.

“Other factors, including increased stress, decreased sleep quality and quantity, too [bigger] portion sizes or more snacks can lead to unwanted weight gain,” Oskian continues.

Registered dietitian Courtney Kassis, MS, RD, LDNadds that reduced muscle mass and hormonal imbalances can also cause weight gain.

Related: Dealing with an Uncomfortable and Painful Stomach Swell? These 40 foods will help

How do you know if you are dealing with abdominal distension or fat? Kassis says one way is to think about your overall appearance. “If you gain belly fat, this is often associated with fat gain in other areas, such as the thighs and back, while bloating is more localized in the abdominal area. She adds that if your belly feels hard and tight, you’re probably dealing with bloating. If it’s softer, it’s probably belly fat.

Both dietitians also say it helps to think about whether it comes and goes or is consistent. “Bloating can appear and disappear quickly. Belly fat often doesn’t feel like it and doesn’t appear or disappear quickly,” Oskian explains.

Related: This Is the Best Supplement for Bloating, According to a Registered Dietitian

5 habits that eliminate bloating and belly fat

Once you’ve identified what’s causing your clothes to become tight, you’ll probably want to know how to get rid of it for good. You may have realized that you are experiencing bloating and weight gain at the same time. What are you doing now? The following habits can help.

1. Walk more

Both dietitians say increasing the amount of exercise each day can help with both bloating and weight gain. “Walking can help create movement in the digestive tract, which aids in digestion and elimination,” says Oskian, explaining how walking can help with bloating.

As you probably already know, walking (and other forms of exercise) also help with weight loss. In addition to incorporating more walking and exercise into your daily routine, Kassis recommends strength training three to four times a week for those trying to lose weight.

2. Take a digestive enzyme to reduce bloating

While it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider before adding a supplement to your diet, Kassis says a digestive enzyme can help the body digest food, which can reduce bloating. Oskian agrees, saying, “Once you’ve discussed with a doctor what the cause of your bloating may be, ask if a specific digestive enzyme can help digest certain foods that you know are giving you symptoms. For example, lactase can help digest lactose or protease can help digest proteins.”

3. Increase your protein levels to lose belly fat

If you want to lose weight, Kassis recommends increasing the amount of protein and aiming for at least 90 grams of protein per day to increase muscle mass. “I like to start my day with 30 to 50 grams of protein with my first meal so I can get a head start on these goals,” she says.

Some protein-rich foods you can add to your diet include almonds, beans, lentils, chickpeas and tofu.

4. Find healthy ways to deal with stress

This is a habit that can help protect against both bloating and weight gain. Kassis explains that if you eat when you’re stressed (such as at the computer while answering emails), the food won’t be digested as well. “Undigested food particles end up in our digestive tract, which can cause inflammation, gas and bloating,” she says.

Stress can also cause weight gain. This is due to both behavioral habits that arise from stress (such as overconsumption of foods high in sugar and fat) and biochemical changes (stress increases the hormone cortisol, making it easier to gain weight and harder to lose weight).

5. Work with a dietitian, health coach or nutritionist

It may be helpful to ask for help, something else that can support the treatment of both bloating and weight gain. As dietitians, both Kassis and Oskian say they help people with these issues all the time. Working with a health coach can also help identify dietary or lifestyle habits that may be causing bloating or weight gain, and then learn interventions that are feasible for you.

Both bloating and weight gain are treatable; Just because you’re experiencing one (or both) now doesn’t mean you always will. Put these tips into practice and you will probably find that your clothes are comfortable again. Comfort and confidence are at your fingertips!

Then check out this list of 40 science- and expert-backed foods and drinks that help with weight loss.

Expert sources

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