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What Are the Functions of Carbohydrates in the Cell?

by
author image Grace Ibay
Grace Ibay has been a freelance writer and blogger since 2005, specializing in the medical sciences and health care. She worked at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health as a research associate and has been published in various scientific journals. Ibay holds a master's degree in health science from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
What Are the Functions of Carbohydrates in the Cell?
The body uses carbohydrates for its various cellular activities. Photo Credit Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

If you think of cookies, cakes and ice cream at the mention of carbohydrates, you may think this food group is all bad for your health; however, carbohydrates are one of the major nutrients that your body can not do without. Carbohydrates are vital and take part in all processes of the cells from proper brain function to immune response.

Carbohydrates for Energy

The cell uses carbohydrates as its main source of energy; however, glucose, the simplest of them all, is the only form that can enter the cell and actually gets used. Other forms of carbohydrates, including fructose, lactose, sucrose and starches, must first be broken down into glucose before being absorbed. To maintain a constant supply of energy for the cells, the level of glucose in the blood must be kept fairly constant.

Energy Storage

When you eat more carbohydrates than is used up, the cells store some of them as glycogen and convert the rest to fat. Over time, this is how we gain weight. During periods of intense activities such as exercise, muscles use up glycogen for energy. When you fast for more than a day or cut carbohydrates completely from your diet, the body begins to convert fat back to glucose for energy. Over time, this is how we lose weight.

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Cell Processes

Aside from providing energy, the cell also uses carbohydrates for its various activities and processes. Carbohydrates located on the cell surfaces regulate communication between cells and other molecules. This communication helps the body recognize and remove harmful bacteria and pathogens and cancerous cells and bring about immune responses against allergy-causing substances.

Healthy Carbohydrates

At the cell level, all carbohydrates are the same -- they either get used or stored as energy or used for cell processes -- however, what you eat determines how much carbohydrate gets used for energy versus what gets stored as fat. If you eat more simple carbohydrates such as cookies, cakes and soda, you gain more weight. Instead, eat more complex carbohydrates from whole wheat, beans and root vegetables, which are less likely converted to fat and provide energy at a steadier pace.

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