Food Energy and ATP
Animals need food to obtain energy and maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is the ability of a system to maintain a stable internal environment even in the face of external changes to the environment. For example, the normal body temperature of humans is 37°C (98.6°F). Humans maintain this temperature even when the external temperature is hot or cold. It takes energy to maintain this body temperature, and animals obtain this energy from food.
The primary source of energy for animals is carbohydrates, mainly glucose. Glucose is called the body’s fuel. The digestible carbohydrates in an animal’s diet are converted to glucose molecules through a series of catabolic chemical reactions.
Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, is the primary energy currency in cells; ATP stores energy in phosphate ester bonds. ATP releases energy when the phosphodiester bonds are broken and ATP is converted to ADP and a phosphate group. ATP is produced by the oxidative reactions in the cytoplasm and mitochondrion of the cell, where carbohydrates, proteins, and fats undergo a series of metabolic reactions collectively called cellular respiration. For example, glycolysis is a series of reactions in which glucose is converted to pyruvic acid and some of its chemical potential energy is transferred to NADH and ATP.
ATP is required for all cellular functions. It is used to build the organic molecules that are required for cells and tissues; it provides energy for muscle contraction and for the transmission of electrical signals in the nervous system. When the amount of ATP is available in excess of the body’s requirements, the liver uses the excess ATP and excess glucose to produce molecules called glycogen. Glycogen is a polymeric form of glucose and is stored in the liver and skeletal muscle cells. When blood sugar drops, the liver releases glucose from stores of glycogen. Skeletal muscle converts glycogen to glucose during intense exercise. The process of converting glucose and excess ATP to glycogen and the storage of excess energy is an evolutionarily important step in helping animals deal with mobility, food shortages, and famine.
ObesityObesity is a major health concern in the United States, and there is a growing focus on reducing obesity and the diseases it may lead to, such as type-2 diabetes, cancers of the colon and breast, and cardiovascular disease. How does the food consumed contribute to obesity?
Fatty foods are calorie-dense, meaning that they have more calories per unit mass than carbohydrates or proteins. One gram of carbohydrates has four calories, one gram of protein has four calories, and one gram of fat has nine calories. Animals tend to seek lipid-rich food for their higher energy content.
The signals of hunger (“time to eat”) and satiety (“time to stop eating”) are controlled in the hypothalamus region of the brain. Foods that are rich in fatty acids tend to promote satiety more than foods that are rich only in carbohydrates.
Excess carbohydrate and ATP are used by the liver to synthesize glycogen. The pyruvate produced during glycolysis is used to synthesize fatty acids. When there is more glucose in the body than required, the resulting excess pyruvate is converted into molecules that eventually result in the synthesis of fatty acids within the body. These fatty acids are stored in adipose cells—the fat cells in the mammalian body whose primary role is to store fat for later use.
It is important to note that some animals benefit from obesity. Polar bears and seals need body fat for insulation and to keep them from losing body heat during Arctic winters. When food is scarce, stored body fat provides energy for maintaining homeostasis. Fats prevent famine in mammals, allowing them to access energy when food is not available on a daily basis; fats are stored when a large kill is made or lots of food is available.