Some people get sick when they eat certain kinds of sugar. Some people get sick when they eat too much of ANY kind of sugar.

So… Is a sugar intolerance causing some of YOUR misery?


What is sugar intolerance?

Pretty woman eating big cubes of sugar.

Is too much sugar ruining YOUR health???

Sugar intolerance can take many forms, from type 2 diabetes to hypoglycemia to bowel problems.

Note that I’m not writing about genetic diseases here. Those are uncommon, and you’d probably know about them before you’d be reading this page.

I’m talking about abuse to our bodies that turn into problems… Abuse that can be prevented to a large degree by changes in your diet.

For people with IBS symptoms, a sugar intolerance can show up as diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and gas.

How can sugar intolerance cause IBS symptoms?

Word cloud showing blood sugar related words

The way sugar works in the body is complicated. Eating too much sugar can cause harm to your health in many ways.
© Can Stock Photo

Most people can digest some sugar. But the human body is NOT capable of handling the amount of sugar in the modern diet (see below).

Digestion is pretty complicated. There are enzymes and chemical reactions that happen during digestion that allow your body to absorb the nutrients and sugars in food.

Anything that your body can’t break down and absorb stays in the digestive tract, and exits out the “back door” when you have a bowel movement.

If you eat more sugar than your body can break down and absorb, some of the sugar will stay in your bowels. As this sugar moves through the large intestine, bacteria and yeast feed on it and create a gas buildup. This gas can cause cramping, spasms and pain.

Sugar can draw water into the large intestine or at least prevent it from being absorbed properly (absorbing this water is the large intestine’s main job).

So, excess gas, watery stool (diarrhea), abdominal pain and cramping… I’m betting that sounds familiar to anyone with the diarrhea version of IBS.

Why sugar intolerance is no surprise:

Our ancestors evolved eating a diet of plants, nuts, seeds and meat. They got a small amount of sugar from fruit when it was available. It’s estimated that our ancestors ate less than a pound of sugar a year (some say it was MUCH less). NOW the average person in the “developed world” eats 150 pounds of sugar in a year! So that’s 150 times as much sugar in your average day!

Bag of sugar with a big scoop.

Human beings were never meant to eat SUGAR BY THE BAG. Sugar is in almost everything!
© Can Stock Photo

So our bodies are designed by nature to eat at least 150 times less sugar than we’re eating! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but that’s just too incredible.

Let’s compare that to other foods as an example. What if our ancestors ate 2 pounds of meat a day, but instead we eat 300 pounds of meat a day. Or let’s say our ancestors only at 1/4 pound of meat a day, and now we ate 37 1/2 pounds of meat a day.

Or let’s consider water. If our bodies are designed to take in 1 gallon a day, and instead we drank 150 gallons a day…

A person who did that would be dead in a couple of days or less!

So sugar intolerance MAY just mean our bodies can’t keep up with the ridiculous amount of sugar (and high fructose corn syrup, etc.) we’re eating. It’s more of a surprise that our bodies don’t just fall over!

Sugar is a drug…

Did you know that they used to lock sugar up? Did you know that sugar is highly addictive? Have you ever heard of a “junk food junky?” Well that’s an accurate description of many people (me especially ;).

I sometimes wonder why sugar isn’t a “controlled substance.” Sounds silly right? But people used to use cocaine in soft drinks, and probably would have thought it ridiculous to cut back on cocaine. After all cocaine just makes you feel good and gives you a boost of energy! Hmm… That sounds familiar. Maybe cutting back on sugar isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

When you try to cut back on sugar, the first few days can be horrible. Sugar is highly addictive, and acts like a drug in your system. Once you go through the drug withdrawal symptoms, you’ll probably start feeling a lot better, but for many people it’s a rough time.

It’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor or a dietitian, to make sure you’re getting enough “complex” carbohydrates.

How to tell if you have a sensitivity to sugar:

One of the best ways to find out about ANY food intolerance is with a food elimination diet. That works very well for fructose intolerance (fruit sugar) and lactose intolerance (milk sugar).

It is more difficult to tell if you have a general sugar intolerance. Sugar is addictive, and when you first stop eating it your body goes into withdrawal!

You’re so busy feeling lousy because of the sugar withdrawal that it’s hard to figure out if sugar is making you sick. You’ll have to wait until sugar withdrawal is completely over before testing with the food elimination diet. When you go to add the sugar back to see if it’s the trouble maker, you’re likely to binge on sugary foods (I’m speaking from experience here.)

Putting together a low sugar, low carb or sugar intolerance diet:

When I first figured out I had some sugar intolerance, I tried the Atkins diet, and felt much better. There have been many other low sugar or low carb diets over the years. Whole books are written about them, and it’s more than I can cover here. But here are some of the famous ones:

The South Beach Diet
The Atkins Diet
The Paleolithic Diet

More recently the FODMAPS diet.

I tried the Paleolithic (or caveman) diet for a while, and it worked very well for me. The idea is that you shouldn’t eat anything you couldn’t get with a spear or from a plant. Basically it means don’t eat what a caveman (or cavewoman ;) didn’t eat. No milk, no corn, no wheat or white flour products, no oats and no beans. All of those items require a mill or cooking before you can eat them.

On the other hand you can eat all the meat fruit and vegetables you want (if you’re trying prevent sugar intolerance symptoms you should be careful of too much fruit).

Over the course of a year, I lost 50 pounds and I felt MUCH BETTER!

But I don’t like to eat vegetables (I’m a vegetable wimp), and so I had trouble getting enough calories. I eventually added corn (i.e. corn chips ;), and rice. Sometimes I “fall off the wagon” and end up eating way too much candy and cookies. I usually feel lousy afterward for a couple of days though.

Other good reasons to kick the sugar habit:

Pudgy woman trying to button jeans that are too small.

Insulin resistance can lead to extra body fat. One more reason to get excess sugar out your diet.

Eating too much sugar makes your body produce a lot of insulin. Insulin moves the sugar into your cells for energy. After a while the cells in your body start to resist the insulin because they’re getting way to much sugar. This is known as “insulin resistance.”

Insulin resistance can lead to weight gain, and can make it VERY difficult to lose weight. Too much body fat can cause hormone problems, heart disease, and a host of other problems.

Being overweight and being insulin resistant often leads to type 2 diabetes (a serious illness). Some doctors are predicting type 2 diabetes will become an epidemic in “developed nations” because of the high level of sugar and simple carbohydrates we eat. People with diabetes usually have to reduce the amount of sugar they eat SO WHY NOT REDUCE IT NOW, BEFORE YOU GET SICK!

Here are specific kinds of sugar intolerance:

Lactose intolerance – when milk products give you problems. The most common sugar intolerance.
Fructose malabsorption – a bad reaction to fruit sugar (aka, how raisins kicked my butt!).

See the Food Intolerance page for other other foods that can cause you trouble.