In school, you most likely learned that carbohydrates and sugars are the molecules that provide your body with energy. While this is true, it is not the only way your body has to obtain energy. If carbs were the only way people could get energy, people on keto would be starving themselves of energy. This is not the case and your body is able to utilize fats and proteins as a means of energy.
The fact that your body is able to turn a wide variety of molecules into usable energy is astonishing. This would be equivalent to being given wood, gasoline, and wind and asked to convert it into usable energy simultaneously. While these are possible on their own, the fact that the body is able to do it all without you ever thinking about it is astonishing.
Below is a look at how your cells traditionally get energy and how proteins can also be utilized as a source of energy. Understanding the metabolic pathways of the body can allow you to better understand your nutrition and what your body needs when it needs it.
How cells get energy
The human body is composed of trillions of cells that all need to obtain energy to survive. Nearly every cell in your body contains an organelle known as the mitochondria which have the sole purpose of converting glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy molecule that cells utilize to survive and perform normal functioning. Muscle cells for instance utilize ATP to facilitate movement.
The reliance on ATP means that the mitochondria play a vital role in the survival and function of the cells in your body. This dependence on ATP is a large reason why people are able to take energy from multiple sources in their diet. Throughout evolutionary history, there may have been times that protein was plentiful and carbohydrates were scarce or the other way around. Having the ability to get ATP from multiple sources ensures that you are able to survive.
The mitochondria have an inner membrane and an outer membrane. The membranes are selectively permeable and only allow specific molecules to pass through them. The selective permeability paired with membrane proteins is what allows for cellular respiration to occur in the mitochondria.
Cellular respiration begins when a cell obtains glucose from the bloodstream. The glucose molecule is subsequently broken down and modified where it is able to enter the mitochondria. While in the mitochondria the molecule is broken down further and manipulated by enzymes on the inner membrane. Each manipulation leads to the pumping of hydrogen ions into the space between the membranes known as the intermembrane space. The high concentration of hydrogen ions essentially pressurizes the intermembrane space and a membrane protein known as ATPase releases this pressure while simultaneously making ATP.
The entire process follows a cycle and allows for the continuous production of ATP. By harnessing the energy found between carbon bonds, the mitochondria are able to effectively produce ATP at a level to sustain life and your entire being.
How proteins provide energy
When people think of protein, they typically think of it in regards to how it is utilized in muscle growth. While proteins are important in muscle development and growth, they can also be utilized as a source of energy.
Typically proteins are utilized by cells for building new structures or enzymes, but in certain cases, protein can be used as a source of energy. If protein is in abundance and is being underutilized, or in the case that carbohydrates are unavailable, the body will begin utilizing protein as a source of energy.
Proteins can enter the cellular respiration pathway but they require specific steps to allow them to do so. The building block of proteins are amino acid and there are 20 different amino acids that are utilized in the human body. Amino acids vary significantly in structure so there are multiple pathways that they can take to get into the mitochondria.
As stated previously, the mitochondria have a highly specific membrane that only allows certain molecules to enter. Amino acids are converted into one of these molecules which allows it to seamlessly enter the mitochondria and produce ATP.
Since amino acids typically don’t have many carbon bonds, these molecules can be utilized to produce glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. Through this conversion, amino acids can effectively be utilized as a form of energy throughout the body in the form of glucose. Areas like the brain are only able to utilize glucose as a source of energy. The ability to produce glucose through the use of proteins is a great fail-safe in the event you don’t eat any carbohydrates.
Factors that can reduce cellular energy production
The cellular metabolism system is highly specific and is the result of millions of years of evolution. While highly robust, there are factors that can reduce mitochondrial effectiveness. One of these is the decreased level of CoQ10 within the mitochondrial membrane. CoQ10 is an antioxidant molecule that helps protect the mitochondrial membrane from free radicals. Without CoQ10 the mitochondrial membrane can experience oxidative stress which can decrease its efficiency of ATP production.
Decreases in CoQ10 can come about due to aging and other factors. Decreased efficiency of the mitochondria can affect carbohydrate, fat, and amino acid equally sense the conversion of molecules to ATP is slowed.
How to support your mitochondria
The importance of your mitochondria cannot be stressed enough. They are the cell structure that is the center of energy production in your body. Your body needs mitochondria to function and supporting them is one of the best ways you can support your body as it ages.
Below are two methods you can utilize to support your mitochondria to allow them to pump as much ATP as they can to support your body’s energy requirements.
CoQ10 plays an important protective role in your mitochondrial health. MitoQ is a supplement made to help restore CoQ10 levels. The CoQ10 supplement is much more capable when compared to the competition because of its high bioavailability. MitoQ is specially formulated to penetrate the highly selective mitochondrial membrane and provide antioxidant relief. Other CoQ10 supplements are fairly ineffective because they are unable to pass through the mitochondrial membrane.
With a supported membrane, the mitochondria are able to function as they should. This allows for the mitochondria to deliver optimal levels of ATP to your cells need to live and thrive.
Living a healthy lifestyle is another way that you can support your mitochondria. Mitochondria can be susceptible to damage caused by excess free radicals and other outside stressors like carcinogens. Living a healthy lifestyle is about avoiding these detrimental factors.
The mitochondria are particularly susceptible to damage because not only do they have an important membrane, but they also contain their own DNA. This means that both their membrane and DNA need to be protected through your lifestyle choices.
Smoking, excessive sun exposure, and exposure to toxic chemicals should be avoided as much as possible because they can damage your mitochondria. These factors can contribute to free radicals and other damaging particles that can damage membranes and even cause DNA mutation. Wearing sunscreen outside, getting routine exercise, and eating a diet of whole foods with plenty of antioxidants are a few actions you can take to preserve your mitochondrial health.
How much difference in energy?
Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats can all be utilized as a form of energy. While they can all be utilized, they have varying degrees of how much energy they produce when undergoing cellular respiration.
Carbohydrates are the conventional source of energy the body utilizes. Blood sugar is the presence of glucose that is found in the blood. Following a meal, carbohydrates are broken down into simple carbohydrates where they can easily be transported through the blood. This blood sugar is then able to be taken up into cells and utilized to produce ATP. A single glucose molecule can produce roughly 30 ATP molecules.
Fats are long carbon chains that are very dense in energy. Since the mitochondria utilize carbon-carbon bonds as a source of energy for ATP production, fats can provide immense amounts of energy. The body actually utilizes fats as a way to store unutilized carbohydrates in the body. A 16 carbon long fat molecule can produce roughly 130 ATP.
Amino acids are needed for protein production and many other uses like the making of enzymes. As an energy molecule, proteins are the least energy-dense. The body will typically exhaust carbohydrates and fats before moving to protein as a source of energy. With very few carbon-carbon bonds, not much ATP is gained from a single amino acid.
In summary, the human body is able to utilize a wide variety of molecules to make energy. Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates can all be utilized to fuel your body’s cellular machinery. Understanding how your body utilizes the food you eat at a cellular level can give you insight into the science behind diets and how you can best support your body’s natural cellular energy.