Burning Carbs

Carbohydrates (also known as “carbs” or “carbos”) are a large class of foods that includes sugars and starches. They are our body's preferred source of energy for everything we do: running and jumping, eating and sleeping, and everything in between. They keep our bodies going.

They can be simple sugars (like glucose), or two or more simple sugars hooked together (like sucrose), or many simple sugar molecules bonded together into starches. Before using carbohydrates for fuel, our bodies have to break these compounds down into simple sugars. Those carbohydrates that resist breaking down move through our digestive tract as fiber and never contribute to the body's energy supply.

Breaking the bonds between the sugar molecules, our digestive system produces a supply of glucose, which enters the bloodstream and travels to our cells to supply energy. To help our cells take up the glucose from the blood, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin. Our cells use the glucose to power whatever activities we're engaged in. If there's more glucose than is needed at the moment, the extra is converted to glycogen and fat and stored in the liver, muscles, and fat cells for future use. When the blood sugar is depleted and we need more fuel, the glycogen is converted back to glucose. When we exercise for a long time, after we use up the available glycogen, we begin burning fat.

Easily digested carbohydrates, such as white bread and sugar, rapidly load the blood with glucose, which triggers a matching insulin response. This quickly drives the glucose into the cells, leaving the blood-sugar level low. We feel hungry again and, if we eat, the extra food will be stored as body fat. by contrast, carbohydrates that are combined with fiber, as they are in whole grains and in fruits and vegetables, are digested slowly and don't provoke an excessive insulin response.

Paying attention to the kind of carbohydrates we consume is vital to controlling our weight.

Vocabulary

  • hormone: A substance produced by certain glands and carried by the blood to bodily organs and tissue. Hormones regulate some body functions and control growth.
  • pancreas: A gland behind the stomach that gives off secretions that help digestion and hormones such as insulin.
  • insulin: A hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates the body's ability to use sugar.

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Activity

  1. What is released inside a person's body when he or she eats a lot of easily digested carbohydrates?
    [anno: A lot of insulin.]
  2. Think of your favorite carbohydrate, such as pasta, potatoes, or bread. Now remember a time when you ate a lot of that food at once. Write a paragraph describing the food that you ate and how you felt afterwards. Include details about whether you had a lot of energy or if you were very tired. Do you think your favorite carbohydrate is made up of simple sugars, like glucose, or complex sugars, like sucrose? Explain your answer.
    [anno: Answers will vary. Students' responses should include the name of a favorite carbohydrate, how they felt after eating a lot of that carbohydrate, and whether they think the carbohydrate is simple or complex, and why.]