Carbohydrates have many negative associations despite being part of a balanced diet. However, some people have uncomfortable reactions to consuming too many carbs. One response is experiencing swelling after eating carbs. This is especially common in the hands, face, feet and ankles.
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If your hands swell after eating sugar or you experience a puffy face after eating carbs, this may be due to high-sodium or inflammatory foods. However, some people experience swelling related to edema. Edema is the medical term for swelling, which can occur due to many different reasons. For some people, food may be a culprit.
Swelling after eating carbs is most likely not edema, but rather a result of inflammation and water retention. When you experience physical discomfort after eating certain foods and meals, it may be a sign that you need to take a look at your diet in order to get to the root of the cause.
What is Edema?
According to Mayo Clinic, edema occurs when excess fluid becomes trapped in bodily tissues, which results in swelling of the affected area. Edema begins when blood vessels in the body begin to leak. Those leaked fluids build up in the surrounding tissues, causing body parts to become distended and tender.
This can happen anywhere in the body — even in organs like the stomach and lungs — but it is the most common in the limbs and face. Many people who have edema experience it in the legs and feet.
There are many causes of edema, such as pregnancy, certain medications, leading a sedentary lifestyle and consuming high amounts of salty foods. However some serious medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure and kidney failure, are also causes of edema. In those cases, see a doctor to determine the root of the cause and address serious concerns.
Edema may be different than swelling after eating carbs, however. If you notice a specific symptom, such as swelling, immediately after consuming food, you may be experiencing an allergic reaction or intolerance to that food.
Read more: Yoga Poses for Edema
Carbs and Inflammation
If you experience symptoms like puffy hands specifically after eating carbs, it may be due to repeated exposure to foods that can cause inflammation. Many people have inflammation without realizing it because inflammation presents itself in different ways. In some people, it appears as redness. In others, it shows as swelling.
The sugar in carbs is a culprit in food-related inflammation and swelling. Many carbs contain sugar, especially simple carbohydrates and simple sugars. Examples of simple sugars include fructose and glucose. Fructose is found in many processed foods, but it can also be found in fruits and vegetables. High-fructose corn syrup is another example of a simple sugar, and it can be found in many store-bought food items. Glucose is also found in fruits and vegetables, though the existing research on sugar and inflammation focuses on fructose.
One reason why your hands swell after eating sugar is that sugar increases the generation of an inflammatory compound called uric acid. A June 2017 study published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology found that uric acid induces systemic inflammation. It also increases the risks of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Though researchers did not find a direct relationship between uric acid and immediate inflammation, consistent exposure to foods that cause cellular inflammation will eventually present themselves as an inflammatory disease over time.
High fructose intake has been shown to increase inflammatory markers in many studies. An October 2015 study published in the Journal of Nutrition compared inflammatory markers as tested after the consumption of various sweeteners: honey, sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup. Glucose-intolerant participants were found to have significantly higher inflammatory markers after consuming these sweeteners.
Read more: Causes of Swollen Lower Legs and Feet
Swelling After Eating Carbs
While carbohydrates are not directly associated with causing edema, high sodium intake increases the risk. Some foods that are rich in carbs, such as pasta, bread and french fries, are also high in sodium. These processed foods have many health risks, and they may increase your chances of developing edema or worsen your existing symptoms of edema.
The balance of fluid can also contribute to swelling related to edema. According to MedlinePlus, too many fluids in the body (aka fluid imbalance) can be caused by too low or high levels of sodium and potassium as well as dehydration. When the body is dehydrated, it retains water. If your hands swell after eating sugar or you experience a puffy face after eating carbs, consider the combination of too much salt and dehydration as a possible cause of your swelling.
Swelling after eating carbs may be due to the quality and type of carbs rather than the quantity of them. According to Harvard Health Publishing, some carbs are healthier than others, so the amount of carbs you consume is less important than the type.
An April 2014 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirms that quality triumphs over quantity in terms of carb consumption, especially when inflammation is concerned. The evidence suggests that complex carbs that are high in fiber and from whole-grain sources have anti-inflammatory effects. Some research also suggests that low glycemic load carbs may also have anti-inflammatory benefits, but more research is needed to confirm.
How to Prevent Swelling
If you experience swelling after eating carbs, it may be due to the type of food you are eating. If it is high in sodium and salt yet low in fiber, it may be a cause of your inflammation. To treat and prevent edema, you must stop the buildup of fluids in the affected area. This can be improved through diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors. If edema is of concern, talk to a doctor as it could be related to a serious underlying condition.
Harvard Health Publishing suggests adopting a low-sodium diet to prevent swelling related to edema. Sodium can cause the body to retain water, so opt for low-sodium foods. It is also suggested to avoid consuming too many fluids, as this can encourage water retention, which worsens swelling.
Other dietary habits that prevent edema include:
- Eliminating simple sugars and refined carbohydrates
- Choosing high-quality carbs that are high in fiber and from whole-grain sources
- Consuming foods that reduce inflammation
Regular movement is also an important part of edema prevention. If you experience swelling after eating carbs, it may be a sign that your body has been resting for too long. Try to increase your activity level throughout the day by moving around or exercising.
If you suspect you may have edema, be aware that edema can be a sign of serious health complications. You should not treat edema lightly. Improving your diet is a good place to start, but in order to treat edema, you must get to the root of the cause.
- Mayo Clinic: “Edema”
- Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology: “Uric Acid Is Associated With Inflammatory Biomarkers and Induces Inflammation Via Activating the NF-κB Signaling Pathway in HepG2 Cells.”
- Journal of Nutrition: “Consumption of Honey, Sucrose, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup Produces Similar Metabolic Effects in Glucose-Tolerant and -Intolerant Individuals.”
- MedlinePlus: “Fluid Imbalance”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Carbohydrates”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Edema”
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Association between carbohydrate quality and inflammatory markers: systematic review of observational and interventional studies"