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Here's How to Tell if You're Dealing With Bloating or Belly Fat—and What to Do About Each

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

Looking in the mirror and noticing that your belly is a bit bigger than it used to be can be a real confidence blow. It can also be uncomfortable if what you’re wearing is too tight because it doesn’t account for the new protrusion.

Sometimes, clothes fit tighter due to weight gain. Other times, it’s abdominal distension, a fancy term for bloat. In both cases, you likely want to get rid of it ASAP. Here, registered dietitians share how to tell the difference between abdominal distension and fat as well as habits that will get rid of both. 

Related: 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 challenging to discern the difference between bloating and belly fat is that both become more common with age. “As we age, the digestive processes slow down, stomach acid production starts to decrease, intestinal motility slows down 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 moves to the intestines, which can be a very likely cause for bloating,” says Alex Oskian, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and online nutrition coach at Working Against Gravity.

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

“Other factors including increased stress, reduced sleep quality and quantity as well as [bigger] portion sizes or increased snacking can result in unwanted weight gain,” Oskian continues.

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

Related: Dealing With Uncomfortable and Painful Stomach Bloat? These 40 Foods Will Help

How do you know if you’re dealing with abdominal distension or fat? Kassis says one way is to consider your overall appearance. “When you gain belly fat, it’s commonly associated with fat gain in other areas, such as the thighs and back, whereas bloating is more localized to the abdominal region. She adds that if your belly feels hard and tight, you’re likely dealing with bloating. If it’s softer, it’s likely belly fat.

Both dietitians also say it’s helpful to think about if it comes and goes or is consistent. “Bloating can appear and settle down quickly. Belly fat often does not feel that way, nor appears or disappears quickly,” Oskian explains.

Related: This Is the #1 Best Supplement for Bloating, According to a Registered Dietitian

5 Habits That Get Rid of Bloating and Belly Fat

Once you’ve identified what exactly is making your clothes fit tighter, you likely want to know how to get rid of it for good. Maybe you’ve realized you’re experiencing both bloating and weight gain at the same time. What do you do now? The following habits can help.

1. Walk more

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

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

2. Take a digestive enzyme to reduce bloat

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

3. Up your protein to get rid of belly fat

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

Some high protein foods to consider adding to your diet include almonds, beans, lentils, chickpeas and tofu.

4. Find healthy ways to manage stress

This is one habit that can help protect against both bloating and weight gain. Kassis explains that when you eat when you’re stressed out (such as at the computer while answering emails), food doesn’t get digested as well. “Undigested food particles head down to 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 stemming from stress (such as overconsuming foods high in sugar and fat) as well as biochemical changes (stress increases the hormone cortisol, which makes it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it).

5. Work with a dietitian, health coach or nutritionist

It can be beneficial to ask for help—something else that can support treating both bloating and weight gain. As dietitians, both Kassis and Oskian say they help people with these very issues all the time. Working with a health coach can also help with identifying diet or lifestyle habits that could be causing bloating or weight gain, and then learning interventions that are doable 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’ll likely find your clothes fitting comfortably once again. Comfort and confidence are within reach!

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

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