Monday, September 25, 2006

Volek: High-Carb, Low-Fat Diet Useless To Health Apart From Weight Loss

Volek reveals some "important paradigm shifting" coming about low-carb

You always hear me talk about the tremendous research that is going on behind-the-scenes about the low-carb lifestyle. Unfortunately, you probably don't see a whole lot of the actual studies that are being conducted because much of the media is disinterested in sharing the amazing progress that has been made in the just the past few years. Even more exciting is that the best is yet to come.

One such researcher you need to know more about is Dr. Jeff Volek. I have blogged about him and Dr. Richard Feinman from the SUNY Downstate "connecting the dots" between metabolic syndrome and the low-carb answer to most of those conditions. More recently, you will recall that I told you about the $450,000 gift from Veronica Atkins and her Atkins Foundation to help promote Dr. Volek's work on low-carbohydrate diets and their impact on obesity and health.

Dr. Volek graciously agreed to be interviewed by me about his research and what he is doing to help share with others the incredible discoveries he has made about livin' la vida low-carb.

1. We are privileged to have with us today at the "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog another one of America's best researchers on the low-carbohydrate diet, Dr. Jeff Volek from The University of Connecticut. Welcome Dr. Volek and thank you for all that you are doing on behalf of the low-carb community with your studies into this incredible way of eating. How and why did you become so interested in nutritional science?

My background is in dietetics and I was a registered dietitian (R.D.) prior to going to graduated school. Initially, I was interested in how nutrition and dietary supplements could be used to optimize exercise performance. I still do a lot of work in this area, but my interests have subsequently shifted to how nutrition affects obesity, disease risk factors, and general health.

2. I have asked other researchers this question, but I'd love to hear your answer to it. What is a day in the life of Dr. Jeff Volek really like. What does a researcher do on a daily basis?

I'm a professor, so my major responsibilities are research, teaching, and service. Realistically, the majority of my time is spent working on research is some way. I'm very fortunate to have very brilliant collaborators and a team of highly motivated graduate students who work on the various research products. It is very exciting to go to work everyday because we have so many cutting edge research projects on low carbohydrate diets, and we have so many opportunities to make novel discoveries.

To be more specific about your question, my days start early and end late - and I'm thinking about low carbohydrate research in some way most of the day. It might be how to find money to support the research, analyzing existing data, solving problems that inevitably arise with human research, writing scientific papers and grants, planning logistical meetings for ongoing and future work, developing new hypotheses based on our findings, etc. It is just a fascinating field of study.

3. The University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education which you are a part of was recently endowed with a generous $450,000 donation from The Atkins Foundation for continuing research into low-carb diets. How important was that gift to the work you are doing and do you envision any groundbreaking results coming out of the work you are doing in the coming years?

This generous gift provides a tremendous boost to our already impressive line of research in low carbohydrate diets. I cannot thank Veronica Atkins and the Robert C. Atkins Foundation enough for their generosity that has made a huge difference to our laboratory and research program. This latest gift allows us to pursue some novel areas that would not
have been possible.

We have already made some very important paradigm shifting findings from this gift, which we will be presenting very soon and publishing early next year. I can't let the cat out of the bag yet, but we will show how important the level of carbohydrate is in determining the fate of saturated fat and provide impressive data to support the concept that saturated fat is not atherogenic when carbohydrates are restricted.

4. Last year, you and Dr. Richard Feinman from SUNY Downstate joined forces to "connect the dots" between metabolic syndrome and the low-carb cure for that condition. What more evidence do doctors and other medical professionals need to realize this terrible condition that many of their patients have has a track record of being reversed by a low-carbohydrate diet?

I wish I knew the answer to this question. I think we have to continue to get the word out, because there are probably still a lot of physicians who are not aware of how much research exists showing the benefits of carbohydrate restriction. The media does not provide much support in promoting the science behind low carbohydrate, and certainly professional organizations openly discourage low carbohydrate diets. The impressive evidence supporting low carb, and the general failure of low fat to curb escalating rates of obesity and diabetes has to eventually lead us to a new place. I hope it is soon.

5. Your research over the past few years has provided a lot of evidence showing not only the effectiveness of programs such as the Atkins diet, but also the safety of being on such diets over longer periods of time. And yet the prevailing school of thought in 2006 among most people is that a low-carbohydrate approach is unhealthy, dangerous, and not for the long-term. How do those of us who have lost weight and kept it off eating this way counter such criticisms?

The idea that fat is the cause of heart disease has been deeply embedded since the diet heart hypothesis was put forth several decades ago. It also just makes sense that 'eating fat makes you fat'. Seems logical and people can understand that - why question it? Unfortunately it is dead wrong.

Eating fat does not make you fat, storing fat makes you fat. And carbohydrates play a major role in storing fat. So the level of dietary carbohydrate is really the most important factor to control because it dictates what happens to fat. Carbs are dominant and fat is passive. When carbohydrates are low, fat tends to be burned, and when carbohydrates are high dietary fat tends to be stored. The same holds true for the atherogenic effects of saturated fat. The body handles saturated fat better when carbohydrates are low.

6. You have done a lot of comparison studies of the low-carb diet vs. the low-fat diet. Describe some of the most notable differences that you have found in your research between these opposite eating plans, including the effect on weight loss and lipid profiles.

This is really fascinating. Low carbohydrate diets outperform low fat diets on just about every risk factor you can measure. This includes standard and emerging markers such as lipid markers, inflammatory markers, vascular markers, metabolic and hormonal markers, etc. The one notable exception is LDL cholesterol. Low fat diets tend to be better at
lowering LDL cholesterol.

However, low fat diets create a type of small LDL cholesterol that is not so healthy. So even though low fat diets can reduce LDL cholesterol levels, the quality of the LDL can be impaired. Furthermore, low fat diets tend to worsen several of the risk factors that low carbohydrate diets improve like glucose, insulin, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol.

Finally, the improvements in metabolic risk factor on low carbohydrate diets are not dependent of weight loss, that is, even if you don't lose weight metabolic improvements persist. However, low fat diets only result in improvement in risk factors if weight loss occurs.

7. The "meat, cheese, and eggs" mentality about a low-carb diet is what most people believe eating low-carb is all about. And yet the low-carb diet you and your fellow researchers fed the people who participated in your study included lots of vegetables. Describe a typical day's low-carb menu for people who ate "low-carb" in your studies and provide the breakdown of the percentage of macronutrients consumed.

Our studies are very well controlled. The main goal is to have subjects restrict carbohydrates so that they produce ketones in the urine. The usual breakdown is about 10% carbohydrate, 65% fat, and 25% protein. There are no restrictions on the type of fat from saturated and unsaturated sources or cholesterol levels. Examples of foods consumed by the subjects included unlimited amounts of beef, poultry, fish, and eggs, moderate amounts of hard cheeses and low carbohydrate vegetables and salad dressings, and small amounts of nuts and seeds.

8. While the overriding message from the media and many health "experts" advocating healthy living principles is that consuming a high-fat, high-protein diet in combination with reduced carb consumption will lead to a worsening of the risk for heart disease, the truth is this nutritional approach has been shown to do just the opposite. What we never hear are the adverse effects of a low-fat diet on our health. Tell us a few of those based on your research.

The potential problem with low fat/high carbohydrate diets is that they can exacerbate the features associated with metabolic syndrome, unless you also exercise or lose weight as part of the low fat diet. High carbohydrate diets increase triglycerides, lower HDL-cholesterol, and lead to greater fluctuations in glucose and insulin. There is also an emerging concept that carbohydrates tend to be more pro-inflammatory. To some extent the over-emphasis on carbohydrates explains why we have seen such an increase in diabetes.

9. Do you think we will ever see the day when the low-fat diet is no longer recommended by our government and health leaders as the only way to lose weight and get healthy? If so, then do you believe it is possible the low-carb approach could someday be suggested side-by-side with the low-fat diet to give people a variety of ways to tackle their obesity and obesity-related diseases?

I hope so. Recent statistics still show that most segments of the population are continuing to get fatter. Our health care system cannot sustain this growth.

10. THANK YOU for agreeing to share some of your thoughts about livin' la vida low-carb with my blog readers today, Dr. Volek. We appreciate all that you are doing and look forward to seeing many great things out of you in the next few years. Do you have any parting comments to encourage any of my readers who are considering going on a low-carb diet?

What I can say to your readers is that I don't have all the answers. We all need to admit that up front. Professional organizations have been pretty cavalier in their recommendations to reduce fat, and this has turned out to be a mistake. What I can tell you is that there a good deal of science to support low carbohydrate diets as a healthy alternative to low fat diets for many people. Low carbohydrate diets may not be ideal for everyone, but certainly low fat diets are not right for everyone either. If we can agree that the best approach is to find which diet works for which people - we will be making progress.

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