Are you carbohydrate intolerant?

Food Intolerance: a detrimental reaction, often delayed, to a food, beverage, food additive, or compound found in foods that produces symptoms in one or more body organs and systems, but generally refers to reactions other than food allergy. – Wikipedia

Lactose intolerance. Egg intolerance. Gluten intolerance. Sucrose intolerance (yep, it’s a thing). If there is a food group that you just don’t digest well, you might have an intolerance. After all, if something bothers your gut BEFORE it even enters your body, that might be a sign.

But can a basic nutrient cause an intolerance? Can people just be carbohydrate intolerant? Well, the fact that some people genetically don’t produce the enzymes to digest sucrose or fructose proves that small portions of the population don’t digest carbs properly. But what about on a broader scale?

Do we need to eat carbohydrate?

We’ve been taught that carbohydrates are an essential nutrient. Technically that’s not true. Through gluconeogenesis the human body can actually create it’s own carbohydrates, unlike an essential nutrient that has to be consumed. But is that the optimal way to obtain carbs?

There seems to be more and more evidence pointing towards the idea that for some of us consuming a diet high in carbohydrate works, but for others carbohydrates can lead to less than optimal health. And it all seems to come down to insulin, and the unique ability of an individual to metabolize fat.

Insulin: The Mighty Gatekeeper

Insulin controls the process of cells absorbing sugar for energy, and also triglyceride absorption into fat cells. In Good Calories Bad Calories, the author points to research that shows a likelihood that some individuals might have more insulin receptors on their fat cells, and some might have more receptors on muscle cells. If your fat cells are more sensitive to insulin, then more of that sugar, in the form of triglycerides (3 fatty acids attached to a sugar molecule), is being stored as fat. Plus, if insulin is elevated for long periods of time, the receptors on certain cells (like muscle) can become less sensitive, while other cell receptors still remain sensitive to insulin, creating an imbalance. After nutrient up-take, if insulin levels are still high, the energy being stored in fat stays trapped in the fat cells, since insulin delivers the message to keep the door shut, so to speak, and silences other hormonal cues that would normally release that energy into the bloodstream for up-take by other cells in-between meals.

The only nutrient we ingest that cues our pancreas to release large amounts of insulin is carbohydrate. And it seems that some people’s natural homeostasis can handle a larger insulin load, but a lot of people just can’t, and therefor gain weight. Energy becomes trapped in fat cells, rather than being release back into the body when needed. Fascinating stuff, right?

How to test for Carb Intolerance

So, how can you know (and test) if you’re carb intolerant? If you’re holding on to any extra weight, your body might not process carbohydrate well, or at least as well as a lean person’s does. For some people, just avoiding any processed carbohydrate and added sugar might cut down enough on digestible carbs that it will get them back to a regular state of homeostasis. But for some, it might not be that easy. Your gut microbiome might just be a carb digesting machine, passing a lot of sugar into your bloodstream.

If you’re overweight but not suffering any ill effects yet (have not been diagnosed with a disease or administered medication) then you can likely safely reduce your carbohydrate to a fairly low level, then add them back in slowly to test your carb threshold. Be warned, if you’re used to consuming a lot of carbohydrate, cutting down can induce flu-like symptoms. And the safest way to do this would be to work with a nutritionist or physician that has experience with low carbohydrate consumption.

If you have any autoimmune diseases and/or are on medication and want to try cutting down on carbohydrate, you definitely need to have a doctor monitoring your results. Drastically cutting carbs can quickly change your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, not to mention how your body utilizes insulin.

One of the best ways to figure out your carb intolerance (or any intolerance), other than body composition (loosing extra weight or inflammation), is just monitoring how you feel. I know that’s not always the easiest, really learning to listen to the cue’s your body gives you. But if you do start to listen, and more importantly pay attention, you can learn a lot about the foods that contribute to your health, or contribute to disease. If you’re not sure where to start, try a whole foods program, like The Whole30, that acts as an elimination diet to help you really pinpoint the foods that disagree with your system.


featured photo credit: Sonja Pieper via Flickr

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