Carbohydrates and Diabetes
Carbohydrates are large biomolecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The dietary forms of carbohydrates are foods rich in these types of molecules, like pastas, bread, and candy. The name “carbohydrate” comes from the formula of the molecules, which can be described by the general formula Cm(H2O)n, which shows that they are in a sense “carbon and water” or “hydrates of carbon.”
In many cases, m and n have the same value, but they can be different. The smaller carbohydrates are generally referred to as “sugars,” the biochemical term for this group of molecules is “saccharide” from the Greek word for sugar (see the figure below). Depending on the number of sugar units joined together, they may be classified as monosaccharides (one sugar unit), disaccharides (two sugar units), oligosaccharides (a few sugars), or polysaccharides (the polymeric version of sugars—polymers were described in the lesson earlier in this tutorial on recycling plastics).
The scientific names of sugars can be recognized by the suffix -ose at the end of the name (for instance, fruit sugar is a monosaccharide called “fructose” and milk sugar is a disaccharide called lactose composed of two monosaccharides, glucose and galactose, connected together). Sugars contain some of the functional groups we have discussed: Note the alcohol groups present in the structures and how monosaccharide units are linked to form a disaccharide by formation of an ether.
Organisms use carbohydrates for a variety of functions. Carbohydrates can store energy, such as the polysaccharides glycogen in animals or starch in plants. They also provide structural support, such as the polysaccharide cellulose in plants and the modified polysaccharide chitin in fungi and animals. The sugars ribose and deoxyribose are components of the backbones of RNA and DNA, respectively. Other sugars play key roles in the function of the immune system, in cell-cell recognition, and in many other biological roles.
Diabetes is a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has a high sugar concentration in their blood (see the figure below). Diabetes may be caused by insufficient insulin production by the pancreas or by the body’s cells not responding properly to the insulin that is produced. In a healthy person, insulin is produced when it is needed and functions to transport glucose from the blood into the cells where it can be used for energy. The long-term complications of diabetes can include loss of eyesight, heart disease, and kidney failure.
In 2013, it was estimated that approximately 3.3% of the world’s population (~380 million people) suffered from diabetes, resulting in over a million deaths annually. Prevention involves eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and maintaining a normal body weight. Treatment involves all of these lifestyle practices and may require injections of insulin.