A Functional Understanding of Carbohydrates

A Functional Understanding of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates have a distinct role in energy production through the foods we eat. An essential form of the compound is glucose, a six-carbon ring structure. This basic building block of life provides the essential elements for more complex molecular structures utilized in cellular transport, cell signaling, and cellular recognition.  When a monosaccharide such as glucose or lactose is consumed, the digestion process begins by cleaving the six carbon chain into two, three carbon chains called pyruvate. The pyruvate is then converted to acetyl coenzyme-A and enters the matrix of the mitochondria to begin the citric acid cycle. During this cycle, more complex structures and energy are produced to generate adenine-tri phosphate (ATP), the energy source for cellular function (Liska et al., 2004).

Long chains of carbohydrates can be synthesized in the body as glycan, a carbohydrate attached to a protein molecule. These are hydrophobic or non-polar molecules, are commonly used in cell signaling. Cellular communication is a significant factor in maintaining homeostasis and eliminating cellular waste, leading to an inflammatory response (Liska et al., 2004).  Having a functional understanding of carbohydrates provides insight into many of the symptoms of metabolic disease. Structural differences, like the number of carbons in a carbon chain, placement of a hydroxide, or other attached constituent group can affect how our bodies metabolize the food we consume (Lustig, 2009). Our choices in which food we consume can either provide essential health-promoting substrates like amino acids and adequate levels of adenine tri-phosphate, with a negative a feedback-loop, to tell our brains when we’re full; or health-harming byproducts like excessive amounts of very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), uric acid and reactive oxygen species (ROS).

Excessive intake of ethanol, sucrose and fructose produce these health-harming byproducts, leading cardiovascular disease, and the activation of JNK1, an enzyme who’s terminal serene activates IRS1. This signaling causes a cascade of inflammatory responses, leading to insulin resistance and requiring more calories to be turned into fat cells (Lustig, 2009). The higher levels of insulin circulating in the blood block the signal of satiety causing the individual to overeat, further continuing the cycle of metabolic disease. An understanding of this cycle may provide the necessary motivation for a person to make better food choices.



Lustig, R. H. (2009). Sugar: The bitter truth [Video file]. Retrieved from http://uctv.tv/shows/Sugar-The-Bitter-Truth-16717 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

The Institute for Functional Medicine. (2004). Chapter 2: Carbohydrates. In D. Liska, S. Quinn, D. Lukaczer, D.S. Jones & R.H. Lerman (Eds.) Clinical nutrition: a functional approach (2nd edition, pp. 17-40). Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine.

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