What Is Protein Bloat?
I’ve had a high protein diet since I first picked up a dumbbell. Despite a ‘clean’ diet consisting of only whole foods, measured and prepared to exact macronutrient specifications, I had been suffering from constant bloating. I was at my wit’s end, wondering how I could clean up my diet any further. I’d only ever read good things about protein. So it took me a while to learn that my high protein diet was the main culprit. I had protein bloat!
I also found out I was not alone. Figure competitor Kalli Youngstrom reports seeing more and more of her fellow competitors complaining of bloating and constipation. She says many people resort to laxatives. But sadly this is just putting a bandage over the wound, and not a healthy or sustainable solution. You’ll be thankful to know it’s also not necessary.
For a while, I tried to ignore what I’d found out. I refused to accept that the pay-off for great abs was a bloated tummy that I had to hide under jumpers. But I couldn’t unlearn what I’d discovered. It initially seemed the case that I either sacrifice the many benefits of a high protein diet or suffer from a constantly bloated stomach. Thankfully, though, I persevered with some further research and have found some effective solutions to beat the protein bloat.
What Causes Protein Bloat?
Before I could fix my protein bloat, it was important for me to understand the reasons behind it.
1. Protein is Hard to Digest
Protein has the highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients, meaning the body expends a lot of energy to digest it. This is great news for your metabolism and is why protein keeps you satiated longer. However, when it comes to the protein bloat, this can be a drawback.
Proteins have a complex structure. The body needs a multitude of different enzymes called proteases to first break them down. Digestive enzymes act to “predigest” your food, and break down as much as 75% of your meal (Barron, 2007). Sadly, the way we live means we generally lack sufficient amounts of digestive enzymes. If nature had its way, we’d get plenty of these from our food. However, cooking and processing food destroys digestive enzymes.
Without these enzymes, protein can sit in the stomach like a hard lump. A large part of a protein-rich meal can enter your intestines undigested. This leads to inflammation and swelling in your intestines, which results in protein bloat.
2. Other Important Macronutrients are Sacrificed
A high protein diet can mean sacrificing other essential nutrients. If we focus only on hitting those high protein macro goals, we can ignore foods that support a healthy digestive system.
Because protein helps build muscle, and carbohydrate fuels workout performance, we fitness folk often ignore fats. However, fats help stimulate bowel movements (Monastyrsky, 2005), and omega 3, in particular, is known to reduce inflammation (Simopoulous, 2002). A diet too low in fat can cause an inflamed colon, leading to bloating as well as constipation.
Many of us get our quota of complex carbohydrates. White rice and sweet potato are some any fitness enthusiast’s staples. However, a lot of ‘good’ carbohydrates lack fibre. Alongside this, there’s almost no fibre in many protein-based foods, such as eggs, meat, and smooth peanut butter. This is a real problem for those suffering from protein bloat. Soluble fibre prevents constipation, while insoluble fibre helps all that protein rich food pass through the digestive tract. It also balances intestinal bacteria, which in turn reduces bloating (Turner, 2013). Bloating often stems from an imbalance in this bacteria, or constipation. So, without sufficient fibre, we’re left even more susceptible to the protein bloat.
3. Protein is Highly Acidic
Your gut has to maintain a certain pH balance to function properly. Many protein-rich foods, such as meat and dairy, are acid-forming. Acid-forming foods raise the acidity level of your gut’s pH balance, which can impair the body’s ability to digest certain foods. This causes these foods to ferment in the gut. A diet high in acidic foods irritates the stomach lining, contributing to digestive problems (Krevsky). To top it off, acid-forming foods can lead to inflammation. One of the chief symptoms of all of these things? Bloating.
4. Whey Shakes Contain High Doses of Lactose
If you’re into your fitness, chances are you consume whey shakes. These are one of the most common culprits for inducing the protein bloat. This is usually because of the high lactose content of most whey supplements. Whey protein concentrate, the most common form of whey supplement, has a higher content of lactose and minerals from milk than other types of whey.
It might surprise you that lactose intolerance is very common. It affects around 75% of the population (Scrimshaw, 1988). Remember what we covered about digestive enzymes? Many of us don’t produce a lot of lactate, the enzyme required to break down lactose. This might go unnoticed when drinking small amounts of milk in tea and coffee, or adding a bit of cheese and butter to your food. However, whey protein is packed with larger doses of lactose than you might otherwise be used to. Think of how fast you can down a protein shake post workout. Now imagine the gut having to deal with this much lactose and artificial sweetener in one hit – instant protein bloat.
How to Beat the Protein Bloat
So, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think it’s settled. That clean, healthy high protein diet is likely the cause of your constant bloating. But don’t despair. You don’t need to throw out all your pre-prepped meals, nor do you need to sacrifice that macronutrient split you’ve been getting great results with. I’ve researched and trialed the following fixes. So I’m safe in the knowledge that the following things will calm your protein bloat while allowing you to still chow down on chicken.
1. Try a Different ‘Whey’
Excuse the pun, but this is top of the list because, for me, this yielded almost instant results. Changing this alone could be enough to beat your protein bloat. The cheapest source of whey protein is whey concentrate. But other types contain less lactose. For example, whey isolate has less lactose and is more refined. It also has a higher protein content – about 90%. Hydrolysed whey is pre-digested, meaning the body has to do less work to absorb it. The price tag might be higher, but your tummy will be flatter.
Another option is to consider a different protein source entirely. I have recently swapped to a vegan supplement, blending hemp, rice and pea proteins. Before doing my due diligence, I was firmly on the ‘plant proteins aren’t as effective’ bandwagon. And it’s true that plant proteins contain fewer amino acids than animal protein, making them less anabolic (Trommelen, 2017). However, studies have found this can largely be compensated for simply by consuming more of it (Gorissen et al., 2016). Choose a good quality blended source to ensure you get a more complete range of amino acids and top up with an extra half scoop.
2. Check You’re Not Overdoing It
As fitness folk, we tend to base all our meals around protein. And this is no bad thing. Recent studies have shown a high protein diet to have no adverse effects on many important health markers (Antonio, 2016, Devies et al., 2018). However, if you’re suffering from protein bloat, it might do you good to check your intake.
While I was conscious of overconsuming other macronutrients, I paid little attention to the amount of protein I was getting. I took whey shakes before and after working out and hit at least 25g of protein per meal. This was more than enough for my goals.
But on further scrutiny, I realised that all my high protein meals added up to more than 3g of protein per kilo I weighed per day. Those into their fitness tend to dismiss the idea that we only need 0.8g protein per kilo of our body weight. But top sports scientists such as Dr. Karen Reid Ph.D. recommend that even top athletes need only consume a maximum of 2g per day, with the majority of us fitness enthusiasts needing more like 1.6g (MacDonald, 2014). Just cutting back on my overall protein intake to nearer these amounts helped relieve my protein bloat (and my wallet).
3. Eat More Fibre and Fats
Once I cut my protein intake down a bit, I needed to fill the empty part of my plate with something. I began introducing more fibre-rich carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Some diet tweaks I made included swapping white rice for wholegrain and adding a teaspoon of milled flax seed to my oats in the morning. I topped up my ‘good’ fat intake with avocado, nuts, and swapped some of my protein sources for oily fish and eggs.
This yielded amazing results. Not only did I stop suffering from constipation, but I saw a definite improvement in my bloated tummy. A few anti-bloating foods that complement any fitness based diet include:
- Sweet potato with skin
- Beans and legumes
- Fruits: bananas, mangoes, strawberries, raspberries
- Nuts and seeds
- Oily fish: mackerel, salmon
- Nut butter
4. Balance Acid with Alkaline
We’ve discussed the impact that acid-forming food can have on gut health. A typical Western diet is highly acidic, and even more so if you eat a diet high in animal protein. Balancing this out with alkaline foods is a great way to reduce many symptoms of protein bloat, and won’t affect your macro goals. Many alkaline foods are very low in calories, such as leafy greens and broccoli. Piling these onto your plate alongside your protein won’t leave you feeling too full, or overeating. Here are some great pH balancers to complement any protein-rich meal:
- Uncooked leafy greens
- Lime juice
- Apple cider vinegar
- Mostly all fruit
I now prep as much alkaline food as I do protein. These have become some of my ‘staples’, and I’ll ensure to balance my protein sources with equal or higher amounts of alkaline foods. I’ll also add apple cider vinegar and lime juice to water. My fridge might be full to the brim with bowls of broccoli and spinach. But my jeans aren’t not busting open under the strain of my protein bloat.
5. Take Supplements
The diet tweaks above will go a long way to help alleviate your protein bloat. However, years of cramming in protein meant I needed a bit more help. This is where supplementation comes in. If changing your diet alone isn’t relieving your symptoms, these supplements are a sure fire way to remedy that bloated tummy.
Bodybuilding prep coach Mark Palfery says digestive enzymes are a godsend for anyone on a very high protein diet. As discussed, we generally have less digestive enzymes than we should due to our society. Protein digestion, in particular, can be hard work for the body. So supplementing with extra enzymes can give your body the support it needs to digest your meals. Proteolytic enzymes work to break down the long chain molecules of protein into amino acids, and these are readily available in supplement form. Make sure your digestive enzyme supplement contains ‘protease’ to ensure it’ll work to help digest your high protein meals.
Inulin is a source of fibre from chicory root. It acts as a prebiotic – or food for ‘good’ bacteria, promoting a healthy gut. It is associated with more frequent bowel movements (Collado et al., 2014) and better digestive health (Marteau et al., 2011). These benefits are great for balancing out the ill-effects of protein bloat.
Inulin is low in calories and is a no-fuss way to increase your fibre intake. It comes in powdered form and is soluble in water, meaning I can add it to my vegan protein shake, or take it alone alongside apple cider vinegar. I’ve developed the habit of taking inulin and apple cider vinegar with water on an empty stomach twice a day. This balances out my gut pH and feeds my friendly bacteria, and has definitely helped my protein bloat!
We’ve covered how protein bloat can be the result of an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. Inulin provides a food source for healthy bacteria to encourage them to grow. But taking a probiotic supplement actively introduces more of these bacteria. Combine a prebiotic like inulin and probiotic for the best gut-balancing effect.
Refrigerated brands of probiotics are said to be higher in quality. However, if you’re like me and source your supplements online, aim for a shelf-stable variety. This will ensure all those friendly bacteria aren’t killed off in transit at room temperature.
It’s important to note these solutions take time. Protein bloat didn’t hit me overnight – it crept up on me over a long period of eating a high protein diet. Healing my protein bloat took a bit of patience. But introducing some balance to your body with the solutions above will help you. Rest assured that you can be bloat free without compromising your protein goals.
Are you on a high protein diet to maximise muscle growth? You probably know that a high protein diet needs to be coupled with a well-informed workout programme. Read our guide on creating the most effective muscle gain workout plan here!