2.3.1. Energy Overview


Energy is essential to life. Normal function of the human body requires a constant input and output of energy to maintain life. Various chemical components of food provide the input of energy to the body. The chemical breakdown of those chemicals provides the energy needed to carry out thousands of body functions that allow the body to perform daily functions and tasks such as breathing, walking up a flight of steps, and studying for a test.

Energy is classified as either potential or kinetic. Potential energy is stored energy, or energy waiting to happen. Kinetic energy is energy in motion. To illustrate this, think of an Olympic swimmer standing at the pool’s edge awaiting the sound of the whistle to begin the race. While he waits for the signal, they have potential energy. When the whistle sounds and they dive into the pool and begins to swim, their energy is kinetic (in motion).

In food and in components of the human body, potential energy resides in the chemical bonds of specific molecules such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and alcohol. This potential energy is converted into kinetic energy in the body that drives many body functions ranging from muscle and nerve function to driving the synthesis of body protein for growth. After potential energy is released to provide kinetic energy, it ultimately becomes thermal energy or heat. You can notice this when you exercise and your body heats up.

The Calorie Is a Unit of Energy

The amount of energy in nutrients or the amount of energy expended by the body can be quantified with a variety of units used to measure energy.

The kilocalorie (kcal) is most commonly used and is often just referred to as a calorie. Strictly speaking, a kcal is 1000 calories. In nutrition, the term calories almost always refers to kcals. Sometimes the kcal is indicated by capitalizing calories as “Calories.” A kilocalorie is the amount of energy in the form of heat that is required to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

Most other countries use the kilojoule (kJ) as their standard unit of energy. The Joule is a measure of energy based on work accomplished – the energy needed to produce a specific amount of force. Since calories and Joules are both measures of energy, one can be converted to the other – 1 kcal = 4.18 kJ.

Estimating Caloric Content

The energy contained in energy-yielding nutrients differs because the energy-yielding nutrients are composed of different types of chemical bonds. The carbohydrate or protein in a food yields approximately 4 kilocalories per gram, whereas the triglycerides that compose the fat in a food yield 9 kilocalories per gram. (A kilocalorie of energy performs one thousand times more work than a calorie. On the Nutrition Facts panel found on packaged food, the calories listed for a particular food are actually kilocalories).

Estimating the number of calories in commercially prepared food is fairly easy since the total number of calories in a serving of a particular food is listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. If you wanted to know the number of calories in the breakfast you consumed this morning just add up the number of calories in each food. For example, if you ate one serving of yogurt that contained 150 calories, on which you sprinkled half of a cup of low-fat granola cereal that contained 209 calories, and drank a glass of orange juice that contained 100 calories, the total number of calories you consumed at breakfast is 150 + 209 + 100 = 459 calories.

Nutrient and Energy Flow

Plants harvest energy from the sun and capture it in the molecule glucose. Humans harvest the energy in glucose and capture it into the molecule ATP.

Food Quality

One measurement of food quality is the amount of nutrients it contains relative to the amount of energy it provides. High-quality foods are nutrient dense, meaning they contain lots of nutrients relative to the amount of calories they provide. Nutrient-dense foods are the opposite of “empty-calorie” foods such as carbonated sugary soft drinks, which provide many calories and very little, if any, other nutrients. Food quality is additionally associated with its taste, texture, appearance, microbial content, and how much consumers like it.

Metabolism Overview

Metabolism is defined as the sum of all chemical reactions required to support cellular function and hence the life of an organism. Metabolism is either categorized as catabolism, referring to all metabolic processes involved in molecule breakdown, or anabolism, which includes all metabolic processes involved in building bigger molecules.

Generally, catabolic processes release energy and anabolic processes consume energy. The overall goals of metabolism are energy transfer and matter transport.

Energy is transformed from food macronutrients into cellular energy, which is used to perform cellular work. Metabolism transforms the matter of macronutrients into substances a cell can use to grow and reproduce and also into waste products. For example, enzymes are proteins and their job is to catalyze chemical reactions. Catalyze means to speed-up a chemical reaction and reduce the energy required to complete the chemical reaction, without the catalyst being used up in the reaction. Without enzymes, chemical reactions would not happen at a fast enough rate and would use up too much energy for life to exist.

A metabolic pathway is a series of enzyme catalyzed reactions that transform the starting material (known as a substrate) into intermediates, that are the substrates for subsequent enzymatic reactions in the pathway, until, finally, an end product is synthesized by the last enzymatic reaction in the pathway. Some metabolic pathways are complex and involve many enzymatic reactions, and others involve only a few chemical reactions.

To ensure cellular efficiency, the metabolic pathways involved in catabolism and anabolism are regulated in concert by energy status, hormones, and substrate and end-product levels. The concerted regulation of metabolic pathways prevents cells from inefficiently building a molecule when it is already available. Just as it would be inefficient to build a wall at the same time as it is being broken down, it is not metabolically efficient for a cell to synthesize fatty acids and break them down at the same time.

Catabolism of food molecules begins when food enters the mouth, as the enzyme salivary amylaseinitiates the breakdown of the starch in foods. The entire process of digestion converts the large polymers in food to monomers that can be absorbed. Starches are broken down to monosaccharides, lipids are broken down to fatty acids, and proteins are broken down to amino acids. These monomers are absorbed into the bloodstream either directly, as is the case with monosaccharides and amino acids, or repackaged in intestinal cells for transport by an indirect route through lymphatic vessels, as is the case with most fatty acids and other fat-soluble molecules.

Once absorbed, water-soluble nutrients first travel to the liver which controls their passage into the blood that transports the nutrients to cells throughout the body. The fat-soluble nutrients gradually pass from the lymphatic vessels into blood flowing to body cells. Cells requiring energy or building blocks take up the nutrients from the blood and process them in either catabolic or anabolic pathways. The organ systems of the body require fuel and building blocks to perform the many functions of the body, such as digesting, absorbing, breathing, pumping blood, transporting nutrients in and wastes out, maintaining body temperature, and making new cells.

Energy metabolism refers more specifically to the metabolic pathways that release or store energy. Some of these are catabolic pathways, like the splitting of glucose, fatty-acid breakdown, and amino acid catabolism. Others are anabolic pathways, and include those involved in storing excess energy and synthesizing triglycerides.

Catabolism: The Breakdown

All cells are in tune to their energy balance. When energy levels are high cells build molecules, and when energy levels are low catabolic pathways are initiated to make energy. Glucose is the preferred energy source by most tissues, but fatty acids and amino acids also can be catabolized to release energy that can drive the formation of ATP. ATP is a high energy molecule that can drive chemical reactions that require energy.

Anabolism: The Building

The energy released by catabolic pathways powers anabolic pathways in the building of macromolecules such as the proteins RNA and DNA, and even entire new cells and tissues. Anabolic pathways are required to build new tissue, such as muscle, after prolonged exercise or the remodeling of bone tissue, a process involving both catabolic and anabolic pathways. Anabolic pathways also build energy-storage molecules, such as glycogen and triglycerides.

Anabolic pathways are regulated by their end-products, but even more so by the energy state of the cell. When there is ample energy, bigger molecules, such as protein, RNA and DNA, will be built as needed. Alternatively, when energy is insufficient, proteins and other molecules will be destroyed and catabolized to release energy.

Energy Storage

In contrast, in the “fed” state (when energy levels are high), extra energy from nutrients will be stored. Glucose is stored mainly in muscle and liver tissues. In these tissues it is stored as glycogen, a highly branched macromolecule consisting of thousands of glucose molecules held together by chemical bonds. For each molecule of glucose stored, one molecule of ATP is used. Therefore, it costs energy to store energy.

Glycogen levels do not take long to reach their physiological limit and when this happens excess glucose will be converted to fat. In response, the rate of catabolism is slowed or shut off and the synthesis of fatty acids is turned on. The newly made fatty acids are transported to fat cells where they are stored as triglycerides. Fat is a better alternative to glycogen for energy storage as it is more compact (per unit of energy) and, unlike glycogen, the body does not store water along with fat. Water weighs a significant amount, and increased glycogen stores, which are accompanied by water, would dramatically increase body weight. When the body is in positive-energy balance, excess carbohydrates, lipids, and protein can all be metabolized to fat.


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Fundamentals of Health and Physical Activity by Kerri Z. Delaney and Leslie Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.