Carbohydrates

Functions of Carbohydrates

Sparing Protein and Preventing Ketosis

So why are carbohydrates important if the body can use other carbon compounds such as fatty acids and ketones as energy? First of all, maintaining a regular intake of carbohydrates will prevent protein from being used as an energy source. Gluconeogenesis will slow down and amino acids will be freed for the biosyntheses of enzymes, antibodies, receptors and other important proteins. Furthermore, an adequate amount of carbohydrates will prevent the degradation of skeletal muscle and other tissues such as the heart, liver, and kidneys. Most importantly, ketosis will be prevented. Although the brain will adapt to using ketones as a fuel, it preferentially uses carbohydrates and requires a minimum level of glucose circulating in the blood in order to function properly. Before the adaptation process occurs, lower blood glucose levels may cause headaches in some individuals. To prevent these ketotic symptoms, it is recommended that the average person consume at least 50 to 100g of carbohydrates per day.

Although the processes of protein degradation and ketosis can create problems of their own during prolonged fasting, they are adaptive mechanisms during glucose shortages. In summary, the first priority of metabolism during a prolonged fast is to provide enough glucose for the brain and other organs that dependent upon it for energy in order to spare proteins for other cellular functions. The next priority of the body is to shift the use of fuel from glucose to fatty acids and ketone bodies. From then on, ketones become more and more important as a source of fuel while fatty acids and glucose become less important.

Flavor and Sweeteners

A less important function of carbohydrates is to provide sweetness to foods. Receptors located at the tip of the tongue bind to tiny bits of carbohydrates and send what humans perceive as a "sweet" signal to the brain. However, different sugars vary in sweetness. For example, fructose is almost twice as sweet as sucrose and sucrose is approximately 30% sweeter than glucose.

Sweeteners can be classified as either nutritive or alternative. Nutritive sweeteners have all been mentioned before and include sucrose, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, and lactose. These types of sweeteners not only impart flavor to the food, but can also be metabolized for energy. In contrast, alternative sweeteners provide no food energy and include saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, and acesulfame. Controversy over saccharin and cyclamate as artificial sweeteners still exists but aspartame and acesulfame are used extensively in many foods in the United States. Aspartame and acesulfame are both hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose but only acesulfame is able to be used in baked goods since it is much more stable than aspartame when heated.

Dietary Fiber

Dietary fibers such as cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin, gum and mucilage are important carbohydrates for several reasons. Soluble dietary fibers like pectin, gum and mucilage pass undigested through the small intestine and are degraded into fatty acids and gases by the large intestine. The fatty acids produced in this way can either be used as a fuel for the large intestine or be absorbed into the bloodstream. Therefore, dietary fiber is essential for proper intestinal health.

In general, the consumption of soluble and insoluble fiber makes the elimination of waste much easier. Since dietary fiber is both indigestible and an attractant of water, stools become large and soft. As a result, feces can be expelled with less pressure. However, not enough fiber consumption will change the constitution of the stool and increase the amount of force required during defecation. Excessive pressure during the elimination of waste can force places in the large intestine wall out from between bands of smooth muscle to produce small pouches called diverticula. Hemorrhoids may also result from unnecessary strain during defecation.