Dietary Carbohydrates

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Chapter: Biochemistry : Nutrition

The primary role of dietary carbohydrate is to provide energy. Although caloric intake in the United States has shown a modest increase since 1971, the incidence of obesity has dramatically increased.


The primary role of dietary carbohydrate is to provide energy. Although caloric intake in the United States has shown a modest increase since 1971, the incidence of obesity has dramatically increased. During this same period, carbohydrate consumption has significantly increased (as fat consumption decreased), leading some observers to link obesity with carbohydrate consumption. However, obesity has also been related to increasingly inactive lifestyles and to calorie-dense foods served in expanded portion size. Carbohydrates are not inherently fattening.


A. Classification of carbohydrates

Dietary carbohydrates are classified as simple sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides), complex sugars (polysaccharides), and fiber.


1. Monosaccharides: Glucose and fructose are the principal monosaccharides found in food. Glucose is abundant in fruits, sweet corn, corn syrup, and honey. Free fructose is found together with free glucose and sucrose in honey and fruits (for example, apples).


a. High-fructose corn syrup: High-fructose corn syrups (HFCSs) are corn syrups that have undergone enzymatic processing to convert their glucose into fructose and have then been mixed with pure corn syrup (100% glucose) to produce a desired sweetness. In the United States, HFCS 55 (containing 55% fructose and 42% glucose) is commonly used as a substitute for sucrose in beverages, including soft drinks, with HFCS 42 used in processed foods. The composition and metabolism of HFCS and sucrose are similar, the major difference being that HFCS is ingested as a mixture of monosaccharides (Figure 27.16 ). Most studies have shown no significant difference between sucrose and HFCS syrup meals in either postprandial glucose or insulin responses. [Note: The rise in the use of HFCS parallels the rise in obesity, but a causal relationship has not been demonstrated.]

Figure 27.16 Digestion of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) 55 or sucrose leads to absorption of glucose plus fructose.


2. Disaccharides: The most abundant disaccharides are sucrose (glucose + fructose), lactose (glucose + galactose), and maltose (glucose + glucose). Sucrose is ordinary “table sugar” and is abundant in molasses and maple syrup. Lactose is the principal sugar found in milk. Maltose is a product of enzymic digestion of polysaccharides. It is also found in significant quantities in beer and malt liquors. The term “sugar” refers to monosaccharides and disaccharides. “Added sugars” are those sugars and syrups (such as HFCSs) added to foods during processing or preparation. [Note: Fructose is 1.7 times sweeter than sucrose.]


3. Polysaccharides: Complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides (most often polymers of glucose) that do not have a sweet taste. Starch is an example of a complex carbohydrate that is found in abundance in plants. Common sources include wheat and other grains, potatoes, dried peas and beans, and vegetables.


4. Fiber: Dietary fiber is defined as the nondigestible, nonstarch carbohydrates and lignin (a noncarbohydrate polymer of aromatic alcohols) present intact in plants. Soluble fiber is the edible parts of plants that is resistant to digestion and absorption in the human small intestine but is completely or partially fermented by bacteria to short-chain fatty acids in the large intestine. Insoluble fiber passes through the digestive track largely intact. Dietary fiber provides little energy but has several beneficial effects. First, it adds bulk to the diet (Figure 27.17 ). Fiber can absorb 10– 15 times its own weight in water, drawing fluid into the lumen of the intestine and increasing bowel motility and promoting normal laxation. Soluble fiber delays gastric emptying and can result in a sensation of fullness. This delayed emptying also results in reduced peaks of blood glucose following a meal. Second, consumption of soluble fiber has now been shown to lower LDL-C levels by increasing fecal bile acid excretion and interfering with bile acid absorption. For example, diets rich (25–50 g/day) in the soluble fiber oat bran are associated with a modest, but significant, reduction in risk for CHD by lowering total cholesterol and LDL-C levels. Also, fiber-rich diets decrease the risk for constipation, hemorrhoids, and diverticulosis. The AI for dietary fiber is 25 g/day for women and 38 g/day for men. However, most American diets are far lower in fiber at approximately 15 g/day. [Note: “Functional fiber” is the term used for isolated fiber that has proven health benefits such as commercially available fiber supplements. Total fiber is the sum of dietary fiber and functional fiber.]

Figure 27.17 Actions of dietary fiber.


B. Dietary carbohydrate and blood glucose

Some carbohydrate-containing foods produce a rapid rise followed by a steep fall in blood glucose concentration, whereas others result in a gradual rise followed by a slow decline. Thus, they differ in their glycemic response (GR). [Note: Fiber blunts the GR.] The glycemic index (GI) quantitates these differences in the time course of postprandial glucose concentrations (Figure 27.18). GI is defined as the area under the blood glucose curves seen after ingestion of a meal with carbohydrate-rich food, compared with the area under the blood glucose curve observed after a meal consisting of the same amount (50 g) of carbohydrate either as glucose or white bread. The clinical importance of the GI is unresolved, but evidence suggests that a low-GI diet improves glycemic control in diabetic individuals. Food with a low GI tends to create a sense of satiety over a longer period of time and may be helpful in limiting caloric intake. [Note: How much a typical serving size of a food raises blood glucose is referred to as the glycemic load (GL). A food (for example, carrots) can have a high GI and a low GL.]

Figure 27.18 Blood glucose concentrations following ingestion of food with low or high glycemic index.


C. Requirements for carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are not essential nutrients, because the carbon skeletons of most amino acids can be converted into glucose. However, the absence of dietary carbohydrate leads to ketone body production and degradation of body protein whose constituent amino acids provide carbon skeletons for gluconeogenesis. The RDA for carbohydrate is set at 130 g/day for adults and children, based on the amount of glucose used by carbohydrate-dependent tissues, such as the brain and erythrocytes. However, this level of intake is usually exceeded to meet energy needs. Adults should consume 45%–65% of their total calories from carbohydrates. It is recommended that added sugar represent no more than 25% of total energy because of concerns that sugar may displace nutrient-rich foods from the diet, potentially leading to deficiencies of certain micronutrients.


D. Simple sugars and disease

There is no direct evidence that the consumption of simple sugars is harmful. Contrary to folklore, diets high in sucrose do not lead to diabetes or hypoglycemia. Also contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates are not inherently fattening. They yield 4 kcal/g (the same as protein and less than one half that of fat; see Figure 27.5 ) and result in fat synthesis only when consumed in excess of the body’s energy needs. However, there is an association between sucrose consumption and dental caries, particularly in the absence of fluoride treatment.

Figure 27.5 Average energy available from the major food components.

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