How glucose becomes energy

Inside your cells, the glucose is burned to produce heat and adenosine triphosphate, a molecule that stores and releases energy as required by the cell. By the way, nutrition scientists, who have as much trouble pronouncing polysyllabic words as you probably do, usually refer to adenosine triphos-phate by its initials: ATP. Smart cookies!

The transformation of glucose into energy occurs in one of two ways: with oxygen or without it. Glucose is converted to energy with oxygen in the mitochondria — tiny bodies in the jellylike substance inside every cell. This conversion yields energy (ATP, heat) plus water and carbon dioxide — a waste product.


Red blood cells do not have mitochondria, so they change glucose into energy without oxygen. This yields energy (ATP, heat) and lactic acid.

Glucose is also converted to energy in muscle cells. When it comes to producing energy from glucose, muscle cells are, well, double-jointed. They have mitochondria, so they can process glucose with oxygen. But if the level of oxygen in the muscle cell falls very low, the cells can just go ahead and change glucose into energy without it. This is most likely to happen when you've been exercising so strenuously that you (and your muscles) are, literally, out of breath.

Being able to turn glucose into energy without oxygen is a handy trick, but here's the downside: One byproduct is lactic acid. Why is that a big deal? Too much lactic acid makes your muscles ache.

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