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Carbohydrates are compounds that consist of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, linked together by energy- containing bonds. There are two types of carbohydrates: complex and simple. The complex carbohydrates, such as starch and fiber, are classified as polysaccharides. Simple carbohydrates are known as sugars and they are classified as mono- or disaccharides, depending on the number of sugars present. Monosaccharides consist of only one sugar; disaccharides have two sugar molecules bonded together.
In the digestive tract, carbohydrates are broken down into the monosaccharide glucose, which provides energy for the body's cells and tissues. Glucose is the body's primary source of fuel.
A common concern among consumers is that a high intake of carbohydrate-rich foods will cause weight gain. Consuming too much of any particular food can cause an increase in weight, but eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and grains will help promote weight
management. General guidelines recommend that about 55 to 60% of daily calories come from carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are either simple or complex. Both have four calories per gram, and both are further reduced by the body to glucose, but complex carbohydrates, which undergo most of their digestion in the large intestine, take longer to digest. Carbohydrates come almost exclusively from plants, vegetables, and grains. Milk is the only animal-based product that contains a significant amount of carbohydrate.
Simple carbohydrates include the single sugars, or monosaccharides, and the double sugars, or disaccharides. The monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Disaccharides include lactose, which is made of glucose and galactose; maltose, made of two glucose units; and sucrose, made of glucose and fructose. Monosaccharides can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream, but disaccharides need to be broken down into their monosaccharide components before they can be absorbed.
When food is consumed, the digestion of carbohydrates begins in the mouth, where an enzyme in saliva breaks down starch molecules into the disaccharide maltose. The food then moves into the stomach where it mixes with the stomach's acid and other juices. In the small intestine, starch is further broken down into disaccharides and small polysaccharides by an enzyme released from the pancreas. Cells lining the small intestine then secrete an enzyme that further splits these disaccharides and polysaccharides into monosaccharides. The cells lining the small intestine can absorb these monosaccharides, which are then taken to the liver. The liver converts fructose and galactose to glucose. If there is an excess of fructose or galactose, it may also be converted to fat. Lastly, the glucose is transported to the body's cells by the circulatory system, where it can be used for energy.
When there is an excess of glucose, the muscle and liver cells often convert it to glycogen, which is the storage form of glucose. The muscles store two thirds of the body's glycogen solely for themselves, and the liver stores the other one third, which can be used by the brain or other organs. When blood glucose levels decline, the body breaks down some of its glycogen stores, and uses the glucose for energy. If blood glucose levels are too high, the excess glucose is taken to the liver where it is converted to glycogen and stored for future use.
Author Info: Lisa M. Gourley, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Nursing and Allied Health, 2002
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