Physiological aspects of energy metabolism and gastrointestinal effects of carbohydrates

Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Dec;61 Suppl 1:S40-74. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602938.


The energy values of carbohydrates continue to be debated. This is because of the use of different energy systems, for example, combustible, digestible, metabolizable, and so on. Furthermore, ingested macronutrients may not be fully available to tissues, and the tissues themselves may not be able fully to oxidize substrates made available to them. Therefore, for certain carbohydrates, the discrepancies between combustible energy (cEI), digestible energy (DE), metabolizable energy (ME) and net metabolizable energy (NME) may be considerable. Three food energy systems are in use in food tables and for food labelling in different world regions based on selective interpretation of the digestive physiology and metabolism of food carbohydrates. This is clearly unsatisfactory and confusing to the consumer. While it has been suggested that an enormous amount of work would have to be undertaken to change the current ME system into an NME system, the additional changes may not be as great as anticipated. In experimental work, carbohydrate is high in the macronutrient hierarchy of satiation. However, studies of eating behaviour indicate that it does not unconditionally depend on the oxidation of one nutrient, and argue against the operation of a simple carbohydrate oxidation or storage model of feeding behaviour to the exclusion of other macronutrients. The site, rate and extent of carbohydrate digestion in, and absorption from the gut are key to understanding the many roles of carbohydrate, although the concept of digestibility has different meanings. Within the nutrition community, the characteristic patterns of digestion that occur in the small (upper) vs large (lower) bowel are known to impact in contrasting ways on metabolism, while in the discussion of the energy value of foods, digestibility is defined as the proportion of combustible energy that is absorbed over the entire length of the gastrointestinal tract. Carbohydrates that reach the large bowel are fermented to short-chain fatty acids. The exact amounts and types of carbohydrate that reach the caecum are unknown, but are probably between 20 and 40 g/day in countries with 'westernized' diets, whereas they may reach 50 g/day where traditional staples are largely cereal or diets are high in fruit and vegetables. Non-starch polysaccharides clearly affect bowel habit and so, to a lesser extent, does resistant starch. However, the short-chain carbohydrates, which are also found in breast milk, have little if any laxative role, although do effect the balance of the flora. This latter property has led to the term 'prebiotic', which is defined as the capacity to increase selectively the numbers of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli without growth of other genera. This now well-established physiological property has not so far led through to clear health benefits, but current studies are focused on their potential to prevent diarrhoeal illnesses, improve well-being and immunomodulation, particularly in atopic children and on increased calcium absorption.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carbohydrate Metabolism / physiology*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / metabolism*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / pharmacokinetics
  • Digestion*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Fermentation
  • Food, Organic
  • Glycomics
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption / drug effects
  • Intestinal Absorption / physiology
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena / physiology*
  • Nutritive Value
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Probiotics
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Dietary Carbohydrates