On a medical level, according to Rabia de Latour, MD, a dual-certified gastroenterologist and therapeutic endoscopist and an assistant professor at NYU Langone Health School of Medicine, bloating is a symptom where patients feel their abdomen is fuller or tighter than usual. “Bloating is primarily caused by gas buildup in the digestive tract,” says Anju Malieckal, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health and an assistant professor, department of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “Water retention due to underlying medical conditions can also lead to bloating.”
Cassie Madsen, MS, RD, a Registered Nutritionist and owner of Madsen Nutrition & Consulting LLC and Gut Health and Nutrition, says it’s perfectly normal for your belly to get a little larger throughout the day. “Most people start the day with a flat stomach and experience a little bloating as the day progresses,” she explains. And because bloating is a symptom itself, it can be caused by a variety of things, says Dr. Latour. “These include intestinal gas, a large meal, constipation, poor gut motility causing food to stay in the stomach longer (gastroparesis), which can result in a large amount of food in the stomach from subsequent meals, even if the patient doesn’t report having a huge meal,” she says. “Although distressing for the patient, it’s not overly concerning from a risk standpoint.”
It is also common for women to experience bloating during their menstrual cycle. “This is thought to be due to water retention due to hormonal imbalances, and the lining of the uterus is thickened, so some people feel a fuller stomach in the days leading up to their period and sometimes a few days later,” says Dr. Latour .
However, much of the gut health content posted online is less about this science and more about achieving a flat stomach. This, Madsen agrees, is a result of food culture. “It puts a natural, healthy process to shame in our bodies,” she says. “It’s almost always unhealthy to focus on bloating unless you’re concerned about an underlying health condition.” Madsen thinks bloating is a big topic of conversation online, in part due to social media and perfectionism, but she believes it is also that it could also be related to the increased attention to gut health as research on the gut microbiome is currently exploding. “Although I think irritable bowel syndrome is very common, I think it’s an overused term,” says Dr. Malieckal, who says many patients can avoid bloating and other GI symptoms by ruling out a food intolerance.
Georgia Sky, aka Bawdy Queen), a Los Angeles-based actress and creator who joins the fat acceptance and body acceptance movements, says bloat has become the idea of being “temporarily fat,” so these bloated videos are pushing the beauty continues to stay thin by default. “When the message is brought forward by skinny doers, it further pushes that standard that having a belly is bad – but it’s ok [when] you have to eat and it’s temporary,” she says. Because of this, even skinny creators showing their bloat in an exaggerated way — imagine flexing their body like a contortionist to show their “fat roles” are more relatable — is less of a revolutionary act than many people think.