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Fuelling the body - Carbs, Fat and Proteins - Arbor Vitamins

Fuelling the body - Carbs, Fat and Proteins

Understanding human metabolism on a deep, biochemical level gives us essential insights into how our bodies use nutrients from food to fuel various physiological processes. The three primary fuel sources, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, each follow distinct metabolic pathways and serve unique functions in the body. This article delves into the science behind these pathways and explores their relative benefits and drawbacks as energy sources.Carbohydrate metabolism

Carbohydrates: An Immediate Energy Source and Glucose Metabolism

Picture carbohydrates as kindling for a fire, igniting quickly to provide immediate energy. In our bodies, carbs are broken down into a type of sugar called glucose. This process happens fast, giving us a quick energy boost. Carbohydrates, typically in the form of glucose, are the body's first choice for fuel. During glycolysis, glucose is broken down in cells to produce pyruvate. Pyruvate is further metabolised in the mitochondria during the Krebs cycle, leading to the production of ATP, the body's primary energy currency.

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However, one must consider the role of insulin, a hormone triggered by high blood glucose levels. Insulin promotes glucose uptake in muscle and fat cells and its conversion to glycogen in the liver and muscles for short-term storage. However, excessive carbohydrate intake, particularly refined carbohydrates, can lead to persistently high insulin levels, contributing to insulin resistance, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.Dietary Fat types

Fats: A Dense Energy Reservoir and Beta-Oxidation

Fats, on the other hand, are like big logs in a fire that burn slowly and steadily. They provide more than twice the energy that carbohydrates and proteins do. They are primarily stored in adipose tissues and mobilised for energy via the process of lipolysis. During lipolysis, triglycerides are broken down into glycerol and fatty acids. The glycerol can enter glycolysis to produce ATP, while fatty acids undergo beta-oxidation in the mitochondria to produce acetyl-CoA, which then enters the Krebs cycle for ATP (energy) production.

Given the high energy yield and long-term storage capability, fats can be an excellent fuel source. However, different types of fats have different health implications. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol, potentially reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. In contrast, trans fats and excessive saturated fats can lead to increased LDL cholesterol and potential heart health issues.

 In situations of carbohydrate scarcity, the liver produces ketones from fatty acids. Ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier and act as an energy source for the brain. Recent research has suggested potential neuroprotective effects of ketones, although more studies are needed.

Protein dietProteins: Essential for Growth and Repair and Gluconeogenesis

Proteins are rarely used for energy under normal physiological conditions. Instead, they're crucial for cellular growth, repair, and enzymatic activities. Proteins are broken down into their constituent amino acids, which can be used to synthesise new proteins, converted into other molecules, or, in cases of extreme energy deprivation, used for energy through gluconeogenesis.

However, excessive protein intake can have downsides. For example, it can lead to an increased load on the kidneys due to the need to excrete excess nitrogen through urine. Also, some amino acids can be converted to glucose leading to an insulin response, potentially contributing to insulin resistance if consistently high.


All macronutrients play critical roles in human metabolism, and each has unique advantages and potential drawbacks as energy sources. A comprehensive understanding of their metabolic pathways can help guide more nuanced dietary choices. While fats, particularly unsaturated fats, provide a dense, stable source of energy and favorable metabolites like ketones, carbohydrates serve as immediate fuel and proteins are indispensable for growth and repair.

Ultimately, a balanced diet incorporating all three macronutrients is key to optimal health. Individual considerations like metabolic health, physical activity levels, and specific health goals should guide the precise macronutrient balance. Always consult with a registered dietitian or a healthcare provider for personalised advice on dietary patterns.

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