Carbohydrate Intolerance: The Surprising Reason You May Not Be Able to Lose Weight

Reviewed by Jeremie Walker, MD, MBA · February 28, 2023
carbohydrate intolerance

Carbohydrate intolerance (carbohydrate malabsorption) is a condition that affects many people, yet it often goes undiagnosed. This condition can make it challenging to lose weight and can also contribute to a host of other health problems. This blog post will explore what causes carbohydrate intolerance, the symptoms to look out for, and how to fix it.

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What Causes Intolerance to Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients our body can use for energy. Many foods contain carbohydrates, including grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Carbohydrate intolerance occurs when the body cannot digest and absorb these carbohydrates, leading to a range of symptoms.

There are a few reasons why someone may be carbohydrate intolerant:

1. Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)

One common cause is an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, a condition known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO can lead to carbohydrate malabsorption, as the bacteria interfere with the body’s ability to break down and absorb carbohydrates properly.

2. Enzyme Deficiency

Another potential cause of carbohydrate intolerance is an enzyme deficiency. Our body produces enzymes that help break down carbohydrates into simple sugars that the body can absorb. If someone has an enzyme deficiency, they may be unable to break down carbohydrates properly. A common example of an enzyme deficiency is lactose intolerance. 

3. Celiacs Disease

Finally, some people may be carbohydrate intolerant due to an autoimmune condition called celiac disease. In celiac disease, the body’s immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine in response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. This can lead to carbohydrate malabsorption and other digestive symptoms.

4. FODMAP Intolerance

The acronym FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, which are specific types of carbohydrates that can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms when fermented by gut bacteria due to carbohydrate maldigestion and malabsorption. Foods containing these carbohydrates include dairy products, legumes, certain whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and sweeteners. A low FODMAP diet is the recommended approach to alleviate these symptoms. 

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Carbohydrate Intolerance Symptoms

Symptoms of carb intolerance include fatigue and brain fog after eating carbohydrates, along with digestive symptoms of nausea, bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

One common symptom of carbohydrate intolerance is weight gain or difficulty losing weight. Two processes occur if an individual consumes more carbohydrates than their body can handle. Firstly, the pancreas releases excess insulin, increasing likelihood that the body will store fat. Secondly, any excess carbohydrates that the body cannot use are absorbed by the liver and converted into fat reserves.

Why Do Carbs Give Me Inflammation?

Inflammation is a natural response of the body’s immune system to injury or infection. However, chronic inflammation can contribute to various health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.

Carbohydrate intolerance not only causes inflammation but also increases the risk of endotoxin release and leaky gut syndrome. Improper carbohydrate digestion can cause undigested carbohydrates to ferment in the gut, leading to bacterial overgrowth and inflammation. Moreover, carbohydrate intolerance can lead to insulin resistance, which elevates blood sugar levels, inflammation, and endotoxin release, increasing the risk of leaky gut syndrome.

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How to Fix Carbohydrate Intolerance

If you suspect you have carbohydrate intolerance, the first step is to identify the underlying cause. Working with a healthcare provider can help determine if you have SIBO, an enzyme deficiency, celiac disease, or another underlying condition contributing to carbohydrate intolerance.

Once you have identified the underlying cause, there are several steps you can take to improve your tolerance to carbohydrates. One strategy is to reduce your intake of fermentable carbohydrates, such as lactose, fructose, and certain types of fiber. These carbohydrates are more likely to be poorly absorbed and can contribute to symptoms of carbohydrate intolerance.

Another strategy is to support your digestive system with the right foods and possibly add probiotics or digestive enzymes if needed. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help restore balance in the gut, while digestive enzymes can help break down carbohydrates and other macronutrients. Many will need to go on an elimination diet to remove the offenders and give their system time to heal. Once a healthy baseline is achieved, we can slowly reintroduce certain food groups to tease out the threats better.

Addressing any underlying health conditions contributing to carbohydrate intolerance is essential. For example, if you have celiac disease, you must follow a strict gluten-free diet to prevent further damage to your small intestine.

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Is Carbohydrate Intolerance the Same as Diabetes?

While carbohydrate intolerance and diabetes share some similarities, they are not the same condition. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which the body cannot produce or respond to insulin effectively, leading to elevated blood sugar levels, chronic inflammation, advanced glycation end products (AGE), and a host of other chronic conditions. Carbohydrate intolerance, on the other hand, refers to the body’s inability to digest and absorb carbohydrates properly.

That being said, there is a link between carbohydrate intolerance and insulin resistance, a hallmark of type 2 diabetes. When the body cannot properly use carbohydrates, it can lead to insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels.

Carbohydrate intolerance is a common condition that can make it difficult to lose weight and contribute to various other health problems. If you suspect you may have carbohydrate intolerance, reach out to Opt Health. Our longevity doctors can work with you to develop a meal plan that helps you lose weight and reduce inflammation, leading to better overall health and longevity. Click here or call (855) 443-8678 to get started. 

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