Like it or not, intestinal gas is a fact of life.
Everyone produces it – some more than others – although most people think they generate too much.
Many foods, like beans or broccoli, have a gassy reputation, but actually any carbohydrate-containing food has the potential to generate gas. Fruits, vegetables, grain products and beans all contain certain carbohydrates – technically known as oligosaccharides - some of which escape complete breakdown as they pass through the digestive tract.
These carbohydrates require a particular enzyme – called alpha-galactosidase - to assist in their digestion, but the enzyme is something the human body doesn't manufacture.
Up to about a third of the starches we consume escape the normal digestive process. So, once they reach the intestine, the bacteria that reside there take over - feasting on the sugars and small starches and producing hydrogen and carbon dioxide gasses as a result.
Most of the hydrogen gas formed in the digestive tract is then consumed by other gas-guzzling bacteria. It's a good thing, too, or we'd have a lot more gas than the quart or so we each produce every day.
Thanks to this bacterial army some several trillion strong, we release gas about 15 to 20 times a day. The amount we release each time is about the same, so when we feel exceptionally gassy we just expel more frequently. We also produce more gas after meals, and much less while we sleep than when we're awake.
It appears that not everyone gets gas from the same foods, and eliminating the usual suspects may not reduce gas in everybody. Since the richest sources of carbohydrates are fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains – foods that are the foundation of a healthy diet – staying away from these items should not be the first line of defense in trying to combat gas.
Instead, try soaking beans overnight, then cook them in fresh water the next day – which will significantly reduce the amount of some of these tough-to-digest carbohydrates with no negative effects on the nutritional value.
If you've been avoiding whole grains or "gassy" vegetables, try eating small amounts over several days to give your system time to adjust.
These things should help, but sometimes we just have to grin and bear it. Maybe a little discomfort is just the "gas price" we pay in exchange for the long-term health benefits to be gained from eating a plant-rich diet.
Susan Bowerman is a consultant to Herbalife.