Do You Have a Carb Sensitivity?

In 2001, I was living in Brandon Manitoba.  I had graduated from University the year before but was still figuring out what to do with my life.  Life was pretty good – I had a decent-paying job, was living with a few good friends, and finally starting to feel like I had a social life.

My Dad was trucking at the time and would occasionally stop in Brandon with a load.  I distinctly remember being excited to meet him because it’s rare that just Dad and I get to hang out.  We met at Pizza Hut and I ordered my usual – pineapple and ham (to this day, a pizza is not a pizza without pineapple!).

Our conversation was good and we were getting ready to leave when suddenly my stomach started to hurt.  And not just a dull ache but a full-blown “I’m going to throw up!” pain.  I tried to hide it because I knew our time was ending and soon I’d be home to deal with the stomach issue.

After our good-byes, I rushed home and spent the next few hours writhing in pain on my bedroom floor.  I was so confused and in such agony.  I had no idea what was happening – I’d felt completely fine before the dinner.  I wondered if there was something wrong with my pizza, I thought maybe I was getting a flu…I just didn’t know.

After 6 hours of this intense cramping and waves of pain all through my stomach, I finally felt normal again.  I was exhausted but my body totally felt fine.  I was hungry, I could eat without feeling awful, and I had my energy back.

A few months later, I was at a bar with friends and I ordered a paralyzer (don’t ask me why!).  I took 2 sips of that drink and ran to the bathroom.  Those excruciating, nauseating stomach pains were back!  I could barely move off the bathroom floor and I did everything I could to pretend I was okay.  I made it back to a table and just sat there feeling awful, drinking water and trying so hard not to move a muscle.

Again, it took hours for that feeling to go away.  And I still had no idea what was happening to me!

Over the next few years, I began to pay attention to these “episodes”.  Patterns began to emerge and I realized that every time I ate a meal that had both dairy and wheat OR dairy and sugar in it, I’d get hit by that nauseating pain.  No one could explain to my why this was happening but at least I had a workaround – avoid all meals with wheat and dairy (i.e. fettucine alfredo, pizza) and anything with sugar and dairy in it (i.e. paralyzers, ice cream).

Occasionally I would have an episode if I mixed regular pop with liquor too, like rum and Coke.  But Diet Coke didn’t bug me.

It was all very baffling!

I now know what was happening to me and that there is a name for my strange issues…I had a nasty carbohydrate sensitivity.  It’s still a bit unclear why I hurt so much when I ate certain concentrated carbs like wheat, dairy or straight up sugar, but my body was simply struggling to digest those carbs.

To this day, I still have symptoms of a carbohydrate sensitivity.

And, honestly, many women have the same issue.

What Is A Carbohydrate Sensitivity?

By definition, a carbohydrate sensitivity or intolerance is the inability to properly digest certain carbs due to a lack of the specific enzymes needed to break these food particles down.

Within our stomachs, we have stomach acid to help break down food as well as enzymes to ensure that food particles are broken down into smaller, digestible components.  When we lack enzymes or our digestive juices aren’t strong enough, undigested food enters the intestines and can cause problems.

With poor digestion, we see bloating, gas, allergy symptoms, an overgrowth of bad bacteria and sometimes either constipation or diarrhea.

We can be born with low enzymes or we can become more and more depleted over time.  When you eat the same foods often, this can use up your enzyme stores, causing worsening of intolerance symptoms.  This is one reason why adults report milk sensitivities.

Symptoms of a Carbohydrate Sensitivity

One of the more prominent symptoms of a carb sensitivity is weight gain and the inability to lose weight.  Even if you are doing everything right, eating healthy and exercising, and you’re not eating too much, you can still gain weight with a carb sensitivity.

Difficulties losing weight on a diet, symptoms of hypoglycaemia (shakiness between meals, feeling “hangry”), fatigue for no apparent reason, anxiety, moodiness, depression, cravings for sweets or carbs, or being unable to stop eating sweets once you start are all signs of this issue.

Most of the women who come into my group have the same story:

“I’ve been eating healthy, watching what I eat for a while, and I do exercise a few times a week.  I’ve tried so many diets and I do lose weight…at first.  Then, I plateau and give up.  And then I end up regaining all the weight I lost.  I try to avoid sweets and sugar but sometimes I just can’t help it – my willpower is not strong enough and I end up binging on cookies all night.”

All of these women struggle with stubborn weight and are so perplexed about why nothing seems to be working!  They keep trying to eat less and less, which only slows down their metabolism further.

A carbohydrate sensitivity, for most women, tends to develop over time as we fill our diets with high carb foods.  Even healthy carbs like sweet potatoes can cause problems with carbohydrate digestion and lead to weight gain and cravings.  The problem with the weight loss industry today is that most programs are full of low-calorie, high-carb foods…which ultimately only makes weight loss so much harder.

Especially once you’re done a diet and want to keep the weight off!

The Dangers of a Carb Sensitivity

While stubborn body fat is super frustrating, the real risk of having a carbohydrate sensitivity is that you can become diabetic without realizing it.

In fact, having a carb sensitivity is linked with insulin resistance, the pre-cursor to Type II Diabetes.  And this risk isn’t necessarily checked during your regular fasting blood glucose tests, either.

As I mentioned, a carb sensitivity develops over time when we eat a diet high in carbohydrates – this includes dairy!  Every time we eat these carbs, our blood sugar spikes and insulin is released to get that glucose into the cells that need energy.  Excess glucose is then stored as fat.

Repeatedly spiking blood sugar and, subsequently, insulin can make our cells “resistant” to insulin.  They essentially stop responding to insulin, so the pancreas has to pump out more insulin to try to move glucose into your cells.

Over time, if insulin resistance isn’t addressed, you can have issues converting your thyroid hormones T4 to T3 (the active state), high cholesterol, PMS and PCOS, extreme fatigue and irritability.  The symptoms of a carb sensitivity are very similar to insulin resistance and the two usually go hand-in-hand!

Best Diet to Prevent & Reverse Carb Sensitivity Symptoms

The good news is that you can reverse carbohydrate sensitivity so that you can enjoy your favorite carbs once again.  By eliminating the carbs your body is unable to digest for a while, you can replenish the enzymes needed so that when you do enjoy pizza or ice cream on occasion, you don’t feel terrible afterwards!

One of the mistakes I see women making when it comes to reversing insulin resistance is to follow a traditional keto diet.  In theory and in practice, a high fat / low carb diet is your best approach to improving your carb sensitivity situation.

However, with traditional keto, most people eat a LOT of cheese…and remember that dairy is, in fact, a carbohydrate (lactose is the carbohydrate or sugar within dairy products).  So, with keto, yes, you are eating a higher fat / lower carb diet; however, you aren’t removing one of the top offenders when it comes to carb sensitivities.

Following a dairy-free high fat / low carb diet is a great way to reverse your symptoms.  This is a very hormone-friendly, sustainable way of eating to promote fat loss, energy, control over cravings and overall female health. Eliminate grains, legumes, dairy, starchy vegetables and all refined sugar and most artificial sweeteners to begin.  Pay attention to your body – keep a journal of what you eat as well as any symptoms you have.

After a few weeks, reintroduce starchy vegetables and see how you feel.  If your body can tolerate those, wait a week and reintroduce legumes.  Follow this pattern to see how well your body can tolerate carbs after a few weeks of avoidance.

One note of caution:  If weight is an issue, avoid following a traditional keto diet because the macro ratios are way too low for most women’s hormones. Instead, follow high fat / low carb by introducing more healthy fats and avoiding the common carb sensitivity foods I noted above.

To make this simple, eat minimal low-sugar fruit (berries, apples), good quality protein, healthy plant-based fats (olive oil, raw nuts) and low-carb vegetables.  If you plan your meals with this in mind, you shouldn’t need to count macros or calories while still losing weight and improving your insulin sensitivity!

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Daina Gardiner
Daina Gardiner

Health & Wellness Contributor (C.H.N.), Owner at Mind Body Healthy Calgary

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