Nutrition is an important aspect of any species. Researchers have described a number of nutrients and classified them as essential or inessential. The rapid growth in population in different parts of the world can partly be attributed to the food security evident over the last few years (FAO/WHO, 1998). Researchers have been able to describe the proportions of the various nutrients that human beings can take every day, as per the body’s daily requirements (Burlingame, 1999). The lack of some of these nutrients has been associated with specific medical conditions. The deficiency of all of them may have a fatal outcome. The discovery of the essential nutrients and the role they play in the body has led to the development of different fixed quantities that each of them should be taken for a more healthy body. These proportions are taught in schools and in health institutions.
One of the classes of foods that are readily available in most of the foods that are consumed is the carbohydrate class. This class has been associated with the provision of the body’s daily energy requirement. Various researchers have described the use of carbohydrates in the body, with specific conditions being associated with the lack of or deficiency of the nutrient (Holt et al. 1999). However, there are documented cases where individuals were able to survive on specific classes of foods in the absence of carbohydrates. This led to the question of whether carbohydrates are essential nutrients. This essay discusses the statement, ‘carbohydrates are not considered essential nutrients’.
Classification of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are food nutrients whose main characteristic components are the elements carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (Huth et al. 2013). In most of the academic literature materials, carbohydrates are credited with the provision of energy to the body. One of the reasons behind the fewer number of researchers willing to study the role of carbohydrates in the body is the complexity of the nutrient, which makes the development of research methodology difficult.
According to Huth et al. (2013), this class of nutrients provides the body with over 40% of its energy requirements. Carbohydrates have been classified into a number of groups based on a number of characteristics. Some of the classification methods include the simple and complex carbohydrates, monosaccharide, disaccharides, and polysaccharides among others (Huth et al. 2013). These classifications have been described as the chemical categorisation and the physiological classification (Huth et al. 2013). Another classification used is based on the polymerisation nature of the carbohydrates (Huth et al. 2013).
Role of Carbohydrates in the Body
As stated above, the major role that carbohydrates play in the body is the provision of energy. Once food is ingested into the body, various nutrients are derived and broken down, with most of them being stored for use after feeding. Carbohydrates are split into smaller glucose elements that the body is able to utilise in the provision of vigour for the various tissues and organs. Carbohydrates are described as the main energy source for the body. Without them, the body utilises other nutrients such as proteins and fats to produce energy. The result of this process is a reduction in the muscle mass and loss of weight (Glynn et al. 2010).
After absorption of the carbohydrates, the final products of digestion are sugars with small molecules. These elements are easily utilised by the body to provide the necessary energy. Some of these sugars are converted into other complex sugars such as glycogen, with these sugars being broken down in periods of activity to provide energy. Research has shown that the consumption of carbohydrates is important in the prevention of medical conditions as most of foods with carbohydrates also contain antioxidant properties (Glynn et al. 2010). Dietary fibre, which is a form of complex carbohydrates, is also useful in the prevention of gastrointestinal conditions such as constipation (Glynn et al. 2010).
Conditions associated with Deficiency
As stated above, the main use of carbohydrates is the provision of the body’s energy requirements. The absence of carbohydrates in the diet leads to the breakdown of the carbohydrates that are stored within the body, especially glycogen that is mainly stored in the liver. When the carbohydrates stores are exhausted in the body, the body turns to the other classes of foods such as proteins and fats to supplement the needed energy. The result in such a deficiency is the loss of muscle mass that most people report as wasting (Laskowska-Klita et al. 2011). According to research, the products of protein synthesis are toxic to many organs in the body. The main organ affected is the kidney (Laskowska-Klita et al. 2011). The result is renal failure that may also be fatal.
Marasmus is another condition that may result from the deficiency of carbohydrates in the body. This condition mainly affects the young children. The reason why children are more affected as compared to other ages is based on their high-energy requirements because of their rapid growth (Stephen et al. 2012). Children are also dependent on other individuals in the provision of their food. In the absence of their providers, they easily experience deficiency of carbohydrate or any other nutrient.
Carbohydrates are also important in the development of the body’s immunity system. Researchers have been able to establish the relationship between the consumption of carbohydrates and the integrity of the immune systems (Glynn et al. 2010). Carbohydrates provide the necessary components in the development of the immune system. Individuals with carbohydrates deficiency often have predispositions to the common diseases. A vicious cycle exists between malnutrition and infections especially in children. According to Laskowska-Klita and colleagues (2011), malnutrition, especially carbohydrates deficiency results in low immunity, thus leading to infection. The onset of infection causes a reduction in food intake and hence a further decrease in immunity, with the cycle being completed.
The notion that carbohydrates may not be essential is supported by the Inuit people’s diet. This group comprises the indigenous people inhabiting the arctic region mainly in the states of Canada, Greenland, and the US. The group has managed to adapt to the environment in the area that has little vegetation and hence little supply of carbohydrates. They rely mainly on animal meat. These people are unable to cultivate the land because of the poor weather and unsuitable soil. They rely on meat from animals such as seals, whales, polar bears, caribou, and birds. They can survive for long without carbohydrates. Besides, they have managed to stay healthy and energetic. Their diet may provide a conclusion that carbohydrates are not essential.
Are Carbohydrates Essential?
Various researchers describe essential nutrients and their role in the body. According to Glynn et al. (2010), six classes of nutrients can be regarded as essential nutrients. These classes include fats, minerals, water, proteins, vitamins, and carbohydrates. Other researchers also classify carbohydrates in the class of essential nutrients. It is generally accepted that these nutrients are essential to the body functioning. A number of people have been described as surviving for some time without consumption of carbohydrates. This situation leads to the development of the question of whether carbohydrates are essential nutrients.
Essential nutrients are those that are necessary for the healthy functioning of the human body, and whose absence or deficiency can lead to the development of specific conditions (Glynn et al. 2010). Some of the conditions that may develop with the absence of carbohydrates in the body have been described above, including the development of low immunity, marasmus, and muscle wasting. These conditions are also prevented with adequate carbohydrate consumption. This finding qualifies the nutrient as an essential one. A personal opinion is that carbohydrates are essential in the human body. Foods containing carbohydrates need to constitute the daily diets to ensure protection from diseases and the provision of energy.
Some of the researchers such as Glynn et al. (2010) classified carbohydrates as essential nutrients using animals in their studies. After withdrawing the carbohydrates from their diet, they investigated the effects. The results were useful in showing that carbohydrates are important to these animals. Most of the animals succumbed because of carbohydrate deprivation, with those that were not deprived of this nutrient surviving much longer and living a healthier life. Therefore, carbohydrates are essential in the healthy body functioning and in the survival of animals, with man included in the list of animals.
Few researchers such as Stephen et al. (2012) have claimed that other classes of food also provide energy in the body. Hence, it is not necessarily important for individuals to take large amounts of carbohydrates (Stephen et al. 2012). Excess carbohydrates have also been associated with some non-communicable conditions such as diabetes and obesity (Stephen et al. 2012). Nonetheless, this observation does not encourage people to abandon carbohydrates. However, they need to take just enough for their body’s requirements. These researchers also agree that the development of conditions that are associated with excess carbohydrates does not mean that carbohydrates should not be taken altogether in the diet. They should be taken in the right quantities.
The body’s daily requirement of carbohydrates is higher than most of the other classes of foods. Hence, they are more important. Carbohydrates are also vital in the regular development of the body. This observation may reveal the high demand that is evident in growing children. The body generates energy from the breakdown of carbohydrates. Heat is a major by-product of the metabolism. Young children have a higher surface area to volume ratio. Therefore, they lose more heat to their surroundings compared to adults. Provision of replacement for the lost heat is through metabolism from carbohydrates. This situation may reveal the high-energy requirements.
Most foods have a considerable carbohydrate component. Some of the individuals claiming to have survived without carbohydrates are considered to have taken considerable amounts of the same elements in their daily diet (Huth et al. 2013), and hence the survival of these individuals. Some other individuals are born with genetic conditions that make it impossible for them to utilise carbohydrates in the diet. Children born with these conditions do not survive for long. Most of them die even before birth (Stephen et al. 2012). This situation demonstrates that carbohydrates are important to human survival.
In relation to whether carbohydrates are essential nutrients, few researchers have embarked on the investigation of deprivation of carbohydrates to human beings. However, the results are evident in people in areas that experience droughts and famine. These areas have a high mortality rate (Glynn et al. 2010). Therefore, carbohydrates are important to the diet of all individuals. They should be taken in adequate amounts. There is insignificant research showing that this class of nutrients is not essential. Therefore, this essay holds that carbohydrates are essential nutrients. This claim has a back up from the literature and observed effects of deprivation. A recommendation is that all individuals should have appropriate proportions of their daily diet as carbohydrates. Burlingame (1999) states the different values of carbohydrate requirements for the various ages. The other classes of nutrients are also not a replacement for carbohydrates.
In conclusion, this essay seeks to answer the question of whether carbohydrates are essential nutrients. The essay has pointed out few researchers who have documented successful survival of individuals who were deprived of carbohydrates. Most research and literature articles show that this class of nutrients is an important one, without which no animal or human beings can survive for long. The uses of carbohydrates are mentioned in the essay, with the most important one being the provision of energy for healthy functioning. Some of the results of deprivation including muscle wasting and decreased immunity are also discussed. A conclusion follows that carbohydrates are essential nutrients hence negating the statement that carbohydrates is not considered an essential nutrient. Therefore, people need to make sure they include the right proportions of this nutrient in their diets for proper functioning of their bodies.
Burlingame, B 1999, ‘Editorial: rules, conventions and recommendations’, Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, vol. 12 no. 1, p. 1.
FAO/WHO, 1998, Carbohydrates in Human Nutrition: Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation, 14-18 April 1997, FAO Food and Nutrition Paper No. 66, Rome.
Glynn, E, Fry, C, Drummond, M, Dreyer, H, Dhanani, S, Volpi, E & Rasmussen, B 2010, ‘Muscle protein breakdown has a minor role in the protein anabolic response to essential amino acid and carbohydrate intake following resistance exercise’, American Journal Of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative & Comparative Physiology, vol. 68 no. 2, pp. R533-R540.
Holt, A, Delargy, J, Lawton, L & Blundell, E 1999, ‘The effects of high-carbohydrate vs. high-fat breakfasts on feelings of fullness and alertness, and subsequent food intake’, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, vol. 50 no. 1, pp. 13-28.
Huth, P, Fulgoni III, V, Keast, D, Park, K & Auestad, N 2013, ‘Major food sources of calories, added sugars, and saturated fat and their contribution to essential nutrient intakes in the U.S. diet: data from the national health and nutrition examination survey (2003-2006)’, Nutrition Journal, vol. 12 no. 1, pp. 1-10.
Laskowska-Klita, T, Chełchowska, M, Ambroszkiewicz, J, Gajewska, J & Klemarczyk, W 2011, ‘The effect of a vegetarian diet on selected essential nutrients in children’, Medycyna Wieku Rozwojowego, vol. 15 no. 3, pp. 318-325.
Stephen, A, Alles, M, de Graaf, C, Fleith, M, Hadjilucas, E, Isaacs, E, Maffeis, C, Zeinstra, G, Matthys, C & Gil, A 2012, ‘The role and requirements of digestible dietary carbohydrates in infants and toddlers’, European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 66 no. 7, pp. 765-779.