Beat the Bloat: Could Protein Supplements Be Causing Your GI Issues?

Article By: Whittany Gibson, RDN

Whittany is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in bariatric nutrition counseling, providing education and support prior to and following weight loss surgery.

Protein waters, protein shakes, protein bars, protein soup, protein chips... Protein, protein, protein! There’s no doubt, if you’ve had bariatric surgery, you have tried a protein supplement of some kind. Given the importance of maintaining a good nutrition status, it’s pretty necessary for at least a little while to have something on hand that will get you to your protein goals faster than eating on that 3-4oz chicken all day till it’s gone. But what if your protein supplements could be the culprit for your occasional or persistent bloating? Don’t give up on your protein supplement just yet! With a little patience and investigating, you may be able to find out what’s causing your GI issues. So get your products out and get a notebook! Ask yourself these questions as you read through the ingredient list and nutrition facts label:

1) Does my product contain whey? Look at the ingredient list and see what type of protein is included. If it contains whey, is it whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate? Whey protein concentrate contains lactose while the isolate only contains minimal amounts of lactose. What does this mean? Well, many people can develop a lactose intolerance following bariatric surgery so you could potentially be experiencing a lactose sensitivity. If this is a protein shake we’re talking about, it may be best to start experimenting with plant-based shakes to be on the safe side or try a brand that is labeled as being lactose free. Many people can experience whey sensitivities altogether which is another reason I frequently recommend plant-based products.

2) Does my product contain sugar alcohols? Sugar alcohols are used as a sugar replacement for many sugar free food and drink products. Some people are bothered by them and can cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, or “bubble guts” where there’s just a lot of bubbly movement and sounds going on in the stomach and intestines and you’re not exactly sure where this will lead! Many times you will find this on your nutrition facts label and will be listed under Total Sugars and reflected in grams (g). Common sugar alcohol names included in the ingredients list are mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol. Sugar alcohols offer no significant calories, nor do they affect the blood sugar but they can indeed be a source of GI issues for some people especially if the product exceeds 4g per serving.

3) Does my product contain high fiber? Fiber is definitely one of those types of carbohydrates we need more of following surgery for a multitude of reasons. These fibers promote a healthy gut, help to stabilize blood sugar levels, promote good cholesterol levels, and help rid our body of toxins and waste... You know, poop! But too much fiber at once, especially without adequate fluid intake can cause bloating and constipation and that’s no fun! Be careful of protein bars or other products that have more than 5-6g fiber in them because this could be too much in one serving for a bariatric patient, also given the fact you cannot have a crazy amount of fluid intake at once. Sure, if you’re consuming clear fluids like a champ and well exceeding your 64oz goal per day, you’ll likely be fine. But if you ride the struggle bus and barely reach your 48oz per day, limit your fiber to 3-4g per serving and really focus on increasing that fluid goal. Remember, “fiber needs fluid”. So if the fluid is not there, fiber will bind you up in no time and can cause significant bloating.

What else? Of course, there can be other various reasons for bloating from your nutrition supplements but it will have to be up to you to investigate. My number one recommendation is to keep a food and symptom journal. I know, I can hear the collective “uuuggghhh” right now. But really... It’s necessary. Your team can’t help you until you help yourself first and gather some data. You will need to log your food in addition to the ingredients added. Particularly address the questions from above first. Also, note in a different column what symptoms you are experiencing. Without a food and symptoms journal, it’s likely even your dietitian won’t be able to help to identify anything more than the obvious reasons which are usually the three from above. But hopefully, your detective skills will help you to figure out the problem and you won’t even need the additional help. Beat the bloat! Investigate!

BariMelts provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor.

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