Life is not fair. Some people can get away with eating anything they want without gaining an ounce while the rest of us just look at a pint of ice cream, and begin to expand ’round the middle. All bodies are not created equal, and anyone who tells you otherwise belongs to that lucky first group of people. They don’t understand, because they live a different reality. It’s not their fault. But here’s the good news. It’s also not your fault.
What is the difference between the lucky svelte people and the unlucky doughy people? There may be many factors, of course, but the one that stands head and shoulders above all the others can essentially be boiled down to “carbohydrate sensitivity.” How your body processes sugars and starchesis what determines whether you build fat easily or burn fat easily. Carbohydrate-sensitive people have exaggerated responses to sugars and starches that set the stage for increased appetite, carbohydrate cravings, and very efficient fat storage.
The role of insulin
These reactions are orchestrated by insulin. When you eat carbohydrates, especially refined/high glycemic index carbohydrates, such as sugar, flour, fruit juice, or white potatoes, your blood sugar begins to rise. Then insulin rushes into your bloodstream to bring it back down again. How does it bring it down? Where does all that extra sugar go? First it sends it off to any cells that might need it. Then, insulin tells your body to stop burning fat, and start burning sugar. So, even if you have plenty of extra body fat that you could be burning for energy, sweets and starches get first priority and they will be burned instead. There is no question that blood sugar spikes leading to insulin spikes are the pathway to obesity. It is impossible to burn body fat if your insulin levels are running too high.
Considering the long-term
Carbohydrate sensitivity tends to worsen over the years, as the body’s system for handling sweets and starches gradually wears out. Type 2 diabetes is essentially the final stage of this process—it is your body’s way of telling you that it simply cannot process carbohydrate anymore. If you already have diabetes, the fat lady has sung. But never fear. There are simple things you can do to stop and even reverse this downward spiral of metabolic madness.
First of all, it would be helpful to know whether or not you are on this path already—how do you know if you are at risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and all of the other chronic health problems that come along with carbohydrate sensitivity?
Take the quiz to see where you are on the spectrum of carbohydrate sensitivity, and then follow the links for advice about how you can change your diet to change the course of your future.
What does my score mean?
The more YES answers you have, the more likely it is that you are sensitive to carbohydrates (insulin resistant), and the more seriously you should consider cutting back on carbohydrates in your diet.
- 1 to 5: YELLOW ZONE. Possible mild carbohydrate sensitivity.
- 6 to 12: ORANGE ZONE. Likely moderate carbohydrate sensitivity.
- 13 or higher: RED ZONE. Very likely strong carbohydrate sensitivity.
How can I be sure my symptoms are due to carbohydrates?
These symptoms are just a collection of common clues. For more accurate information about your carbohydrate metabolism, you should ask your doctor for an evaluation and request blood tests. These tests can help determine whether or not you are already on the road to diabetes and related health problems. In the final section of this post there’s a link to a list of the latest lab tests and other practical resources to help you prepare for a conversation with your doctor.
There are also other medical conditions which can cause some of the symptoms mentioned in the quiz. This is another important reason to see your health care professional for an evaluation to make sure that your symptoms aren’t due to another health problem, such as a thyroid condition.
If my score is low, is it ok for me to eat sweets and starches?
If your score is zero or in the lower end of the yellow zone, your body probably handles carbohydrates better than most, which means you may be at lower risk for carbohydrate-related diseases. However, we can’t say your risk is zero, because there isn’t enough scientific research available to answer this question.
Also, your score can easily change over time. Our ability to process carbohydrates tends to gradually worsen as we get older. Some people do fine with carbohydrates until they reach a certain age or stage of life—puberty, pregnancy, middle-age, or menopause. This is partly due to natural hormonal changes, but also may be influenced by the amount and type of carbohydrate we eat. So, even if your score is low now, it could rise over time. Choosing healthier forms of carbohydrate from now on may help to keep your score low as you get older, and keep your risk of carbohydrate-related diseases low. If my score is high, do I have to stop eating all carbohydrates in order to feel better?
Not necessarily. Some people with high scores do just fine if they simply avoid sugars, refined carbohydrates, and other foods that rapidly raise blood sugar and insulin levels. [For a complete list of “bad” carbohydrates, please see my refined carbohydrates list.]. Others have to remove almost all forms of carbohydrate to restore their health. Everyone’s metabolism is different.
If your score is in the upper orange zone or in the red zone, you may be at higher risk for carbohydrate-related health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and fatty liver disease. I don’t want you to be discouraged, though–in fact, I want you to think of a high score as a helpful early warning sign of problems to come. You can improve your metabolism very quickly and greatly reduce your risk simply by reducing your carbohydrate intake! Even if you already have a carbohydrate-related health problem, reducing your carbohydrate intake is the most powerful way to turn things around!
What should I do next?
Regardless of your quiz score, the single most important thing you can do for your health is to reduce the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet! It is amazing how quickly the body responds to being fed properly. You can begin improving your metabolism and protecting your health around in just a few weeks!
- KNOW YOUR RISK. Learn where you are on the carbohydrate sensitivity/insulin resistance/pre-diabetes spectrum by obtaining a medical evaluation including blood tests. For a free downloadable PDF of lab tests with their target values, a simple formula for estimating your insulin resistance, recommendations for how much carbohydrate you should consume based on your metabolism, and an infographic with tips for making healthier choices and improving your metabolism, see my post “How to Diagnose, Prevent and Treat Insulin Resistance.”
- EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT SUGAR AND HEALTH. To learn more about the link between insulin resistance (poor carbohydrate metabolism) and serious chronic illness, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, fatty liver disease, heart disease, obesity, and gout, read my post “Why Sugar Is Bad for You.“
- EXPLORE LOWER-CARBOHYDRATE DIETS. To learn more about low-carbohydrate diets, some of the challenges you might encounter, and get some helpful resources, read my post “Ketogenic Diets 101.”