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BIOLOGY OF EATING AND DIGESTION

All biotic organisms derive energy from food to sustain life and this energy “drives” various cellular functions, including digestion, metabolism, pumping blood, and muscle contractions. Nutrients can broadly be defined as chemical substances (typically found in foods or supplements) that are necessary for proper growth and development, reproduction, cellular function and maintenance, and repair following injury. Based on their chemical nature, nutrients can be grouped into organic (carbon-containing) and inorganic classifications. Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins comprise the former, while minerals and water are inorganic nutrients essential for life (Stipanuk, 2006). Inorganic nutrients such as minerals can be absorbed into the body through food and are generally incorporated into the food chain through environmental sources (soil, water). Minerals comprise about 4% of the body weight in humans and in combination with water furnish a major part of the obligatory milieu necessary for cellular functioning (pH, osmolarity). Macrominerals are those whose abundance is generally 0.01% of body weight or daily required amounts exceed 100 mg/day. Calcium, phosphorous, sodium, and magnesium fall in this group. Other minerals that are not as abundant can be equally important for an organism. Trace minerals are defined as minerals whose concentration is less than 0.01% of total body weight. Other alternative definitions include nutrients whose requirements are below 1 ppm. Iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, and molybdenum are six essential trace elements with established recommended dietary allowances. Overall, trace nutrients perform a variety of important functions, including transport of oxygen (iron as a part of hemoglobin), catalysis of biological reactions as component of enzymes (iron, zinc), and as part of other organic molecules (selenocysteine). While inorganic compounds serve important roles in physiology, the energy in food is derived from metabolism of organic substances. Organic compounds are generally synthesized by living cells from simpler molecules. For example, green plants and marine phytoplankton utilize photosynthesis to convert the very simple molecule carbon dioxide into more complex, energy-rich compounds such as carbohydrates using the energy from the sunlight. Because most bacteria and higher organisms cannot carry out photosynthesis, they derive their energy by metabolism of preformed organic molecules, such as carbohydrates. In general, bacteria utilize simpler organic molecules and animals and humans require more complex macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) to meet their energy needs.

Digestion of Foods

Common foods are a complex matrix and before the nutrients in food can be utilized they invariably need to undergo digestion. The process of digestion is a remarkable orchestration of many complex biochemical and physiological events, which occurs throughout the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, involving mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into simpler nutrients that are amenable for absorption. The upper GI tract consists of oral cavity, esophagus, and stomach. Breakdown of food begins in the mouth via the actions of enzymes in saliva. Movement of food between sections of the GI tract is restricted via sphincters or valves. In the stomach, ...

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