fats and the human body

Generally, when it comes to losing weight and making choices concerning the foods we love, carbohydrates are always at the top of the list. However, while there is growing interest among the population about good food choices, a good majority still lacks the knowledge of why certain foods are considered healthy or good and others are not.

Unfortunately, one of the types of food that has seen its fair share of this attitude is carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are being unduly vilified by a lot of people who mostly don’t even understand the basis for their decisions. This has resulted in a lot of weight-loss seekers unwittingly dropping this essential macronutrient from their diets in an attempt to lose weight.

Carbohydrates as a class are the most abundant organic compounds found in nature. They are almost exclusively from plants, vegetables, and grains except for milk which is the only animal-based product that contains a significant amount of carbohydrate. As a group, they consist principally of sugar, starch, dextrin, cellulose, and glycogen – all compounds that make up important part of human diet.

The human body in fact needs carbohydrate more than any other substance because the brain and muscle cells are designed to run on carbohydrates. Glucose, the final product of the breakdown of all consumed carbohydrate-containing foods, is very critical in a lot of body functions such as the maintenance of tissue protein, metabolism of fat, and provision of fuel to the central nervous system.

Types of Carbohydrates

The chemical compounds in carbohydrates – which are basically made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms – are found in either simple or complex forms. Depending on the sugar unit they contain, they are classified as monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides. Both simple and complex carbohydrates have four calories per gram, and both are further reduced by the body to glucose.

Simple Carbohydrates

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Single sugars, or monosaccharides, and the double sugars, or disaccharides make up the simple carbohydrates which usually have one or two sugar molecules. The monosaccharides includes glucose, fructose (which is found in fruits), and galactose (which makes up half of the sugar called lactose found in milk). Galactose is a vital part of brain and nerve tissue. The disaccharides include sucrose (made of glucose and fructose found in table sugar), lactose (made of glucose and galactose and found in milk), and maltose (made of two units of glucose and found in beer and malt liquors).

In general, all monosaccharides, and disaccharides are termed sugars. They are readily soluble in water, are odorless, colorless, and usually capable of forming crystals. Simple carbohydrates are more or less sweet in taste and also make foods sweet. Honey, fruits, and dairy products contain large amounts of simple carbohydrates and provide the sweet taste in most candies and cakes.

While the most important simple sugar is glucose, however, the best known is table sugar, which is also known as sucrose, a disaccharide. Due to the fact that they are smaller, simple carbohydrates are more easily broken down by the body and provide the fastest source of energy.

Complex Carbohydrates

The larger carbohydrates are made up of several smaller simple carbohydrates and are known as polysaccharides (many sugar molecules) or complex carbohydrates. They are so –called mainly because their molecular complexity requires the body to break them down into their constituent sugars before their energy reserves can be released for use by the body. For instance, glycogen is composed of about 10 monosaccharides and starch about 25.

Complex carbohydrates are found almost exclusively in foods of plant origin, but unlike simple sugars, they do not taste sweet. Complex carbohydrates are divided into two groups: starch and fiber.

Starch

Starch forms part of the cell walls in plants and constitute part of rigid plant fibers. Starch serves as the main energy reserve in roots, vegetables, and cereals because its oxidation to carbon dioxide and water releases energy and they are also the main type of digestible complex carbohydrates. Sources of starchy carbohydrates include breads, potatoes, plantain, pasta, cereals and some fruits and vegetables.

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Fiber

Non-starch carbohydrates make up dietary fiber which is the indigestible part of plant foods such as cellulose that consists of several thousands of glucose units. Fiber is the rougher material that forms the coat of a seed and other structural components of plants.

The body’s lack of digestive enzymes to break apart the complex sugar linkages in fiber makes it pass through the digestive track virtually unchanged. Also, since they are not absorbed into the body, dietary fibers (sometimes called non-nutritive fiber) are not considered to be a nutrient as they provide no calories. Dietary fiber are either soluble or insoluble in water and provide such health benefit as reducing blood cholesterol levels, normalizing blood sugar levels, and supporting bowel regularity.

The body digests and absorbs complex carbohydrates at a rate that helps maintain a healthful blood glucose level. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole-grain bread, rice, pasta, cereal, beans, and most vegetables.

Digestion and Absorption of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates must be digested and absorbed before they can be converted into an energy form (adenosine triphosphate, or ATP) which the body can make use of. The digestion of carbohydrate-containing begins in the mouth where the enzyme amylase, which is contained in saliva, mixes with food products and breaks some starches into smaller units. Further into the stomach, the amylase is inactivated and the food mixes with the stomach’s acids and other juices.

Most of the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates actually takes place in the small intestine. Here, starch is further broken down into disaccharides and small polysaccharides by the enzyme, pancreatic amylase. Other sugar-converting enzymes in the small intestine carry out specific roles such as the conversion of maltose into glucose by maltase; cane sugar into glucose and fructose by sucrase or invertase; and milk sugar into glucose and galactose by lactase.

Enzymes from the cells of the small-intestinal wall further split these disaccharides and polysaccharides into monosaccharides. These monosaccharides — glucose, galactose, and fructose — are absorbable through the cells lining the small intestine and subsequently pass through them into the portal vein and carried into the liver. Some of the produced glucose at this stage goes directly for use as energy in both the brain and red blood cells while the remaining glucose along with fructose and galactose make their way to the liver.

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The liver subsequently converts the fructose and galactose to produce more glucose which is then released into the bloodstream. The body however does not immediately make use of all the glucose absorbed from the digestion of carbohydrates, but rather converts most of it through the liver for storage in a form called glycogen (also called animal starch) in both the liver and muscles.

The muscles store about two thirds of the body’s glycogen exclusively for themselves while the liver stores the remaining one third which can be drawn from by the brain and other organs. Glucose is also converted into amino acids, and other biological compounds and if in excess, may also be converted into fat for storage in adipose tissues. The amount of carbohydrates stored as glycogen is equivalent to about a day’s worth of calories.

Conclusively, glucose is therefore the end product of the digestion of all carbohydrate-containing foods. However, a few cells such as the liver and kidney cells are capable of producing their own glucose from amino acids. Also, only the liver and muscle cells can store glucose in a form called glycogen (animal starch). All other body cells must therefore obtain glucose from the bloodstream.

While glucose is the body’s primary source of energy most especially for the brain, muscles however only use glucose for short-term bouts of activity. Conversely, glycogen serves as the body’s auxiliary energy source, which is only released and converted back into glucose through the process of glycolysis during periods of intense physical activity or when blood glucose levels become too low. Despite the fact that stored body fat can also serve as a backup source of energy, it is however never converted into glucose.