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Carbohydrate metabolism: how do we burn carbs?

We are aware that metabolism is the process by which our body burns calories for fuel. We should also be aware that certain food calories are broken down in different ways, but once they make it to their lowest common denominator it may not matter what the exact source of those calories really was. The process by which foods are broken down, and the rate at which this happens may influence how many calories are burned and how much is stored. For now, the focus will be on carbohydrate metabolism and why understanding the basic action can help you to lose weight.

Whenever we eat or drink something, our body must use energy to process the nutrients. In the case of carbohydrates, the actual amount left over after processing is 90% of the total calories. We burn about 10% of the carbohydrate calories just by digesting them. Our body takes the carbohydrates and breaks them down to a simple compound called glucose. The body is in a constant battle to maintain the delicate balance of all of its systems including its blood glucose level. This balance, also known as homeostasis, can be interrupted and thrown-off, by overeating and by extreme dieting. In most cases, the body is aiming for blood glucose numbers in the range of 70–110 mg/dL.

Whenever we eat or drink anything, our body releases hormones that help to digest and process the foods and beverages. Of these hormones, insulin is like the mother hen. It attempts to usher all of the sugar molecules into storage tanks. The body also releases glucagon that is like an older sibling. It tries to break the sugar molecules out of the storage tanks so that they can be burned for food. Glucagon will also try to hide the sugar by turning it into glycogen and stashing it in the muscles and in the liver. If there is no immediate need for the energy, the remaining calories will be stored either in the glycogen tanks to be burned off at another time or in the fat cells where it will be kept as body fat.

Certain foods upset the delicate balance and produce a huge tidal wave of insulin. These insulin spikes can then lead to faster, easier fat storage as the body starts to resist the insulin’s efforts. Insulin resistance is the inability or resistance of the muscles or liver cells to store glycogen. As a result of this resistance, even more insulin will be released. When more insulin is released, the body is more likely to store fat.

Total insulin released is usually equal to the total amount of blood glucose. However, the higher the initial flood of carbohydrates, the longer that the insulin will be at elevated levels. Again, the more insulin that is released into the blood stream, the more likely you are to have at least some body fat storage. It is better to eat foods that do not cause insulin spikes or at least those that cause smaller insulin spikes. It is also wise to eat smaller, more frequent meals.