You planned to wear your new jeans today, but after eating that breakfast burrito, you’re reaching for sweatpants instead. Don’t panic; most people experience bloating at one time or another as a symptom of gastrointestinal distress. “As an internist, I see one or two of these cases every day,” says Timothy Harlan, MD, author of Just Tell Me What to Eat! (Da Capo, 2011). The challenge is to figure out the causes, which vary from water retention to food intolerances, he says. Banish the bloat with these tips. 

Eat slowly

When you eat too fast, you swallow more air, which can lead to bloating, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2009). Plus, digestion starts in your mouth; if food is only partially digested by the time it reaches your gut, intestinal bacteria have to work harder to break it down—and produce more gas in the process. Take your time and chew until food reaches applesauce consistency.

Watch salt

Sodium maintains the body’s healthy fluid balance, but wherever sodium goes, water tends to follow, says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, PhD, RD. Sodium affects PMS bloating, too. Just before menstruation begins, fluid levels fluctuate and women tend to hold onto more water, she says. “That’s a really important time to pay attention to the amount of sodium you’re taking in because it’s only going to make it worse.”

To avoid fluid retention, keep daily sodium to 2,300 mg or less daily, or 1,500 mg a day if you’re over 50, black, or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. Check food labels carefully; look for 115 mg or less per serving, ideally, and certainly no more than 500 mg per serving, Blatner recommends. You can also counteract sodium’s effects by drinking plenty of water and eating potassium-rich foods, says Blatner. Good sources include sweet potatoes, white beans, and bananas.

Lose the bubbles

Fizzy drinks are common bloat culprits because the carbon-dioxide bubbles have a hard time escaping after reaching your stomach, says Gazzaniga-Moloo. So avoid carbonated drinks, but don’t skimp on fluids. “Everyone who suffers from bloating, regardless of the cause, should make sure they drink enough water,” she says. Though you might think water makes bloating worse, it actually helps the body flush out things that might be exacerbating it, including sodium.

Limit sugar-free foods

Many low-calorie foods, such as salad dressings and low-cal ice creams, include

sugar alcohols, which cause gas and bloating in some people. “It’s the very first question I usually ask patients [with bloating and gas]: Are you chewing sugar-free gum? Are you eating sugar-free foods?” says Harlan. If yes, cut back on foods with sugar alcohols, such as mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol, in their ingredient lists.

Identify sensitivities

Bloating is a common symptom of food sensitivities, such as intolerance to lactose or gluten. Keep a food diary, suggests Harlan, so you can alert your health care practitioner of any patterns. (Here’s how to do an elimination diet.) If you’re lactose intolerant, you can try milk products that many people find easier to digest, such as yogurt, goat’s milk, and aged cheeses.

Most of the time, bloating is just a temporary annoyance. But if it starts affecting the quality of your life, lasts for more than two weeks, or is accompanied by other symptoms like weight changes or pain, be sure to see your doctor.