Carbon atoms make up an immense part of our molecular structure. Without carbon, the many other elements that make up our bodies would not be able to function properly. Human beings are a "carbon-based” life form. As we go about our lives, our supply of carbon diminishes and needs replacing. Carbon is, therefore, an essential component of the human diet. Luckily, the foods we consume make carbon readily avaiable to us. Fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats all contain abundant stores of carbon.
Macronutrients & Carbon
Our intake of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins supply us with carbon in the form of large molecules called macronutrients. The majority of our diet can be classified into one of these three food groups; all contain a foundation of carbon with slightly differing additional chemical properties. Virtually, everything we eat contributes to our carbon intake.
The Carbon Cycle
In one form or another, all of the food we eat contains carbon dioxide . The plants we consume, such as vegetables, absorb carbon dioxide in the air through the process called photosynthesis. The animals we eat ingest carbon dioxide via the grass and plants they consume. Ultimately, everything that is organic, or living, gives its carbon back to nature either through respiarition (i.e humans) or through death and decay. This recycling and reuse of carbon is known as the Carbon Cycle.
Carbohydrates are the most plentiful source of energy for all living creatures. They come in two basic forms -- simple sugars and complex carbohydrates.
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Sucrose is the most widely known simple sugar, but there are several other examples such as glucose and fructose. Simple sugars are digested quickly by the body, which can cause fast burst of energy, along with spikes in blood sugar levels.
Complex carbohydrates are found in grains and starchy vegetables -- potatoes, for example. Complex carbs take longer for the body to process, resulting in steady levels of energy, and stable blood sugar levels. All carbohydrates eventually break down to glucose, a molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Glucose provides energy for the body. Pasta, bread, cereals, beans and rice are all rich in essential carbohydrates.
Fats are often portrayed as deleterious, but some are healthy, even necessary in order for the body to function smoothly. All fats contain carbon. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids mostly (but not exclusively) come from plants. Oils including olive oil, sunflower oil, and fish oil contain essential fatty acids, elements that the body cannot synthesize by itself.
Every single cell in our body is built from protein. Proteins are composed of varying combinations of 20 amino acids. Amino acids are in turn comprised mainly of carbon, with differing side chains. The adult body can synthesize 12 of these amino acids on its own, but it must receive the remaining 8 from diet. Meat, milk, eggs, cheese, and nuts are all viable sources of essential amino acids.
Carbon is The Key
Over 30 elements are needed to keep plants and animals healthy, but carbon is perhaps the single most important element.This is because it serves as the foundation for all of the remaining elements in our body. Almost every part of our bodies is made up of large quantities of carbon. The most effective way to sustain adequate carbon levels is through a nutrient dense, balanced diet.
Peter Staples has been writing professionally since 1965, in journalism and public relations. He has worked for “The Times," BBC online and other outlets in England, plus Australian newspapers “Sydney Morning Herald” and "Melbourne Age." Staples holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and history from the U.K.’s Open University.