If your midsection feels slightly larger than usual, you might wonder if this size increase is caused by weight gain or bloating. Although the two may look and possibly feel the same, weight gain and bloating have key differences.
According to Bryan Curtin, MD, MHSc, director of the Center for Neurogastroenterology and GI Motility at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, bloating is the subjective sensation of abdominal fullness, pressure, or trapped gas. In other words, it’s when your belly becomes enlarged with gas or fluid. It’s generally a temporary condition.
In contrast, belly or abdominal fat develops over time. It requires a lower calorie intake and an increase in exercise to go away.
With that in mind, here are the main differences between bloating and abdominal fat, the causes of each, and ways to find relief.
Not sure if you’re gaining fat or just dealing with belly bloat? Here are some ways to tell the difference.
Appearance and storage
You have a couple of easy ways to tell whether it’s fat or bloat, says Matthew Olesiak, MD, chief medical director at SANESolution. “Fat is stored throughout the body via adipocytes (fat cells),” he says. So, if you’re gaining fat, Olesiak says you’ll notice it on several other areas of your body, such as your back and thighs.
But if your belly is the only body part that has expanded, Olesiak says it’s likely bloat.
How it feels
The next time you feel your abdomen expanding, pay attention to how it feels. Bloating will usually cause your belly to feel hard and tight, whereas abdominal fat will feel soft.
Length of time
One way to know if you’re gaining fat or just dealing with a bout of bloating is how long it lasts. Curtin says that bloating comes and goes. But generally, abdominal fat is more constant.
Measurable on the scale
“Belly bloating is an uncomfortable sensation that everyone has experienced at some point,” says William Li, MD, author of “Eat to Beat Disease.” It can come and go, and it’s not something you can measure on a scale.
Gaining weight from fat is different. “Actual weight gain from fat is seen on a scale and doesn’t go away by itself,” Li says.
Bloating has several potential causes. Here are some of the more common triggers:
- Gas buildup in the intestines. This is a common cause of bloating, but it’s also a symptom of other gastrointestinal issues or disorders. Speak with a doctor if you have concerns or if you have recurring or constant bloating.
- Diet. Eating too much fiber, beans, dairy products, and other foods is a major cause of gas and bloating.
- Constipation. Having infrequent or unproductive bowel movements means that stool stays in your colon longer than it should. Olesiak says this gives bacteria more time to ferment it, which leads to excess gas and bloating.
- Inflammatory bowel disease. In Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract can trap gas and cause bloating.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). With SIBO, an atypical increase of bacteria exists in the small intestine. When the colon has an imbalance of bacteria, known as dysbiosis, Olesiak says bacteria can overgrow into the small intestine. This leads to many digestive symptoms, including bloating.
- Eating too quickly. Li says eating too quickly can temporarily cause you to feel bloated.
- Other medical conditions. Certain medical conditions can make you feel bloated. Li says the following conditions can slow the transit of food in the gut, change the microbiome from healthy bacteria to unhealthy gas-producing bacteria, or cause constipation:
Bowel obstruction and untreated ascites can both be medical emergencies. Go to the nearest emergency room if:
- You’ve recently undergone abdominal surgery and experience abdominal bloating, severe constipation, and a loss of appetite.
- You have bloating alongside a suddenly distended belly, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing when lying down, heartburn, nausea, and vomiting.
When it comes to bloating, you have two options to keep it in check: you can avoid foods and activities that trigger bloating, and you can intervene when you first notice your stomach feeling full or swollen. The good news is there are as many remedies for bloating as causes. Here are some remedies to try the next time you feel bloated.
Reduce gas-producing foods
Olesiak says if you’re dealing with stomach bloat after eating, consider reducing the following gas-producing foods:
Avoid processed foods
Curtin says the sugars and preservatives in processed foods can be a common source of bloating.
Monitor bowel movements
Keeping a regular schedule of bowel movements can help prevent bloating by providing information about potential triggers of the bloating.
This includes eating smaller portions. Slowing your eating also helps lower the amount of air you swallow, which can trigger stomach bloat.
Sip on some herbal tea
The following herbal teas may help reduce bloating:
- lemon balm
Use peppermint oil
Speak with a doctor before taking any supplements, as they are not closely monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some supplements may contain stronger concentrations of active ingredients that could pose health risks, as well as other ingredients not listed on the label.
Skip the carbonated drinks
Carbonated drinks like soda and energy drinks deliver gas into your intestines, causing belly bloat.
Go for a walk
You might feel like taking a nap after your meal. But Kristen Fleming, MS, RD, says that moving at a steady pace while taking a walk can stimulate the passage of gas through your digestive tract and offer relief.
Try an abdominal massage
Fleming says that with the correct technique, abdominal massage can release tightness, cramping, and gas. A
Press gently with your fingers to perform this abdominal massage:
- Starting on the right side of your stomach by your pelvic bone, rub in a circular motion upward until you reach your ribs for 1 minute.
- Move straight across to the left side for 1 minute.
- Rub in circular motions downward until you reach your left hip bone for 1 minute, then back up to your belly button for 2 to 3 minutes.
- You can press gently with your fingers.
- Repeat the massage in a clockwise motion for 10 minutes.
Unlike stomach bloat that comes and goes throughout the day, abdominal fat, also called visceral fat, sticks around unless you make permanent changes to eliminate it. Abdominal fat usually the result of overall weight gain. This happens when you consume more calories than your body is burning.
For some people, abdominal fat is the result of an unbalanced diet and minimal physical activity. But for others, it might be caused mainly by diet, and more specifically, eating too many calories. This can happen even though they exercise regularly.
Foods that can contribute to abdominal fat gain include:
- sugary foods and drinks
- foods with high levels of trans fats
According to a 2021 research review, carrying excess fat around your midsection can put you at risk of:
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- problems with metabolism
Menopause is another factor that contributes to an increase in abdominal fat. This is due to a drop in estrogen levels which causes fat to be stored in the abdomen.
Most of us deal with abdominal fat. If you’re trying to lose a few pounds to reduce abdominal fat, you may decide to adjust your diet and increase your physical activity.
Overall, losing abdominal fat is a balance of diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. This includes eating more fruits, vegetables, and lean protein, and reducing the amount of trans fat, refined carbs, sugar, and alcohol you consume.
Bloating is generally a temporary condition you can manage at home. But sometimes, visiting a doctor is a good idea.
Contact a doctor if your stomach is bloated and also distended, which is when the stomach gets noticeably larger after a meal. Also schedule an appointment if you’re experiencing bloating and:
- severe pain
- nausea and vomiting
- weight loss
You can also see a doctor if you are gaining abdominal fat. A doctor can provide helpful information about proper diet and exercise techniques you can use to lose fat.
Understanding the differences between stomach bloat and abdominal fat can help you determine the cause of your symptoms and the best way to manage them.
Bloating is often temporary. It’s usually caused by something in your diet, a medical condition, or your lifestyle.
Abdominal fat, on the other hand, is the result of an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and in some cases, medical conditions. It’s also more permanent unless you take action to reduce it.