Up-and-coming low-carb researcher Cassandra Forsythe
You know, I'm spoiling you this week by publishing TWO interviews in the past few days. If you missed my interview with Dr. Gil and Regina Wilshire earlier this week, then you will want to go back and check it out. It was REALLY encouraging hearing these fantastic leaders in the low-carb community sharing their passion for livin' la vida low-carb.
Today, I have another special treat to share with you. That beautiful woman you see at the top of this post is a young lady named Cassandra Forsythe from the Department of Kineseology at the University of Connecticut. You may not know who she is yet, but Cassandra is one of the rising research superstars who will thrust low-carb to the next level in the science lab in the decades to come.
Get to know the future Dr. Cassandra Forsythe today in my exclusive interview with her as she shares what she is doing in her pursuit of a PhD and what she wants to do with her education after she graduates. Cassandra is EXACTLY the kind of people we need working behind-the-scenes on college campuses from coast to coast in the United States constantly looking to science for nutritional answers, not more of the same propaganda we hear from the so-called health "experts."
ENJOY my interview with her and feel free to post your comments about it at the end of this post. I sure am glad Cassandra is fighting for the truth the old-fashioned way--empirical, science-based knowledge that comes from long-term research studies.
1. I'm pleased to welcome to the "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog today a PhD student in nutrition and metabolism at the University of Connecticut named Cassandra Forsythe who works directly with one of the most influential members of the low-carb research community, Dr. Jeff Volek. Thanks for joining us today soon-to-be Dr. Forsythe (that does have a nice ring to it)! You have a very personal reason for livin' la vida low-carb that frankly has nothing with being overweight or obese. Tell my readers about your carbohydrate health horror story.
Thank you Jimmy for inviting me to your blog. I'm very happy to share my story with your readers. For me, instead of being one of the many individuals who are carb insensitive (meaning that due years of carbohydrate-overexposure, their pancreas does not produce the insulin needed to clear the carbs from their bloodstream OR their tissues are unresponsive to insulin that is released).
I'm someone that is TOO carb sensitive! Whenever I eat carbs, especially high glycemic carbs I become immediately hyperglycemic (aka high blood sugars) and then quickly hypoglycemic (aka low blood sugars). When I was tested in the hospital recently, after an oral glucose tolerance test, my blood sugar level went down as low as 30 mg/dl after only 2 1/2 hours! This reaction is known as reactive hypoglycemia, and I noticed Connie Bennett spoke about it recently on your blog.
Now, doctors tell people with hypoglycemia to eat quickly digesting carbohydrates(like glucose tablets) immediately to help them get out of the blood sugar lows(these are the same doctors that tell diabetics to eat a low-fat diet, mind you). But, what this really results in is just another bout of reactive hypoglycemia! It was the sugars that put me there in the first place!
So, I ignore the "wisdom" of these doctors and have learned to prevent hypoglycemic by staying away from carbohydrates and sugars. A low-carb lifestyle has been my saving grace. Now I focus my diet on protein, fats, and green vegetables.
Before I discovered that I didn't have to eat carbs with every meal, or even carbs at all, I was always hungry, shaky and irritable due to the fact that my blood sugar levels were always on a rollercoaster ride. Now, my concentration levels, satiety and overall mood are so much better because I maintain euglycemia.
2. Despite all the attention on weight loss that the low-carb lifestyle receives (and rightfully so since it does perform that function well), it really is about controlling disease, isn't it? Whether it's hypoglycemia, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, or a myriad of other known illnesses associated with too much carb consumption, the most amazing part of livin' la vida low-carb is about naturally bringing these health ailments under control without the use of drugs or invasive surgical procedures of any kind, right?
You're absolutely correct Jimmy. Proper food choices have the ability to make meaningful changes in anyone's body. It's amazing that drug companies have such a huge impact on our society when their products have so many uncomfortable side effects and are not even half as effective as changing one's eating habits around for the better.
However, we all know that the reason drugs are so popular is because people have never been expected to take their health into their own hands. Instead of being responsible for their actions, they've been taught that they can reach for a pill whenever their health goes downhill. It's sad, really.
3. While I'm sure it is thrilling to be on the cutting edge of nutritional science as it relates to low-carb, no doubt the day-to-day activities of your studies may not be all that exciting to the average person. What is a typical day in the life of Cassandra Forsythe?
Well, right now, I've been taking some time away from the research because I'm studying for my PhD exams. My supervisor Jeff Volek is letting me focus on passing those before I'm expected to return to the lab for the day-to-day research.
Normally, though, a day in the life of Cassandra Forsythe is very exciting; but it's also one that requires a lot of self-motivation and passion for research. You see, as a researcher, no one is expecting me to clock in and clock out at some specific time. Instead, my day is built around the schedules of the research subjects we have participating in our studies, the classes I have to take for my degree, the readings I have to do to stay on top of the investigations done by other low-carb scientists, and the writing we have to do in order to communicate our findings to the world.
Overall, my day doesn't just go from 7am to 5pm with a coffee break, lunch break and afternoon tea; rather, it's goes all day long and doesn't take breaks on the weekends. Now, that doesn't mean I have no social life or no escape from work, but it does mean that I spend less time watching TV, and more time getting in things that are important (such as working out).
Also, our team of students at the lab is one of the best and we work very well together to accomplish some amazing research. It's all about team effort, because doing our jobs alone would not be possible.
4. Zeroing in on your primary fields of interest as it relates to livin' la vida low-carb, what are the major studies you are working on looking to discover? Without getting into the deep details of any ongoing study for obvious reasons, are you seeing any surprising trends among the data your team has compiled so far that could be damning for the low-fat diet in 2007 and beyond? When do you expect some of this research to be made public?
The major questions we're looking to provide solid answers for is the effectiveness of a very-low-carbohydrate diet for the treatment of Metabolic Syndrome (the clustering of health disorders that predispose people to diabetes and cardiovascular disease) compared to a low-fat diet. We're also trying to determine what are the best types of fat to consume while following a very-low-carbohydrate diet.
With respect to surprising data from our team, yes there are some very exciting results that we've discovered. This data will be published very soon and what it's going to show the world is that the beneficial effects of a low-carb diet extend further than just weight loss and improvements in blood triglycerides and cholesterol. A very-low-carb diet actually significantly improves the quality of our plasma membranes which results in better cell signaling, improved insulin sensitivity and decreased inflammation.
These results are in comparison to a low-fat diet, and will cause advocates of a low-fat diet for treatment of Metabolic Syndrome to think twice about their recommendations.
5. Oh, that will be VERY exciting indeed, Cassandra! One specific field of interest in your research surrounds the much-vilified macronutrient known as fat. Society has grown accustomed to equating a low-fat diet with a healthy one while simultaneously considering any diet that is high in fat and low in carbohydrates as unhealthy. But there are differences in fat quality that the average Joe and Jane off the street do not differentiate or really understand for that matter. Can you share the basic difference between the various kinds of fat and which ones are actually good and even essential for you to consume?
We all think of fat as just the white stuff you cut off your steak or the grease you drain out of the pan after you cook any type of meat. We also refer to certain fats as being saturated or unsaturated with the former being bad for you and the latter being good.
What we don't understand though is that all foods that contain fat or any kind are a mixture of all different types of fatty acids. These fatty acids are basically long chains of carbons, oxygens and hydrogens that differ in the amount of bonds that are found between each carbon. Saturated fatty acids have single bonds between each carbon and are straight chains.
Monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond somewhere in the chain and are kinked as a result. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more double bonds in the chain and a very kinked. There are also trans fatty acids, which are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid, but instead of being kinked, their configuration makes them straight.
Overall, straight chains of carbons are supposed to be the bad chains because in cell membranes they can lie closely side-by-side and cause the membrane to be very rigid. The unsaturated chains can't lie close together in membranes and as a result, cause the membrane to be more fluid and flexible.
Also, in nutrition studies, researchers have found that foods that contain a high proportion of saturated fatty acids in them (remember, no food is 100% any type of fatty acid, instead, they are a MIXTURE of different types), cause increases in blood cholesterol and risk of disease. However, this research is very outdated and failed to look at what type of cholesterol was increased.
Saturated fatty acids increase both the good and the bad cholesterol, so really their effects are not all that terrible. Also, in the majority of research, the effects of fatty acids were evaluated in the context of a high-carb diet. There may be a different effect of fatty acids depending on the amount and type of carbohydrate is consumed in conjunction. Our research here at UConn has given us evidence that saturated fats may not be as bad as once thought, and their effects are dictated more by the hormonal effects of carbohydrate in the diet.
In summary, the only type of fatty acids you need to avoid completely in your diet are trans fatty acids. These types of fats are those found in deep fried and hydrogenated fat foods and are typically found in conjunction with carbs. However, some low-carb foods, like deep-fried chicken wings or dressings with hydrogenated oils should be avoided for their potential to contribute trans fatty acids. Foods with saturated fat, like dairy, and some meats, are not bad and don't need to be eliminated from a low-carb diet.
6. While it is universally known that trans fats are indeed bad news for the body as you just indicated, the same cannot necessarily be said for all saturated fats which have been severely maligned and misunderstood by low-fat zealots spreading ignorance about this vital ingredient in a healthy diet. You briefly hit on this in my last question, but what kind of saturated fats should people be eating and why? Do you have any studies in the works that will compare how the quality of fat consumed really does make a difference?
Like I was saying above, there hasn't been enough research with saturated fatty acids to deem them as evil or not. What I mean is that no one has isolated saturated fatty acids from carbohydrates to see if they have the same effect on health markers as when the level of carbohydrate (an in turn, glucose and insulin in the body) are high. So, what I know right now about individual saturated fatty acids is just what I've read in studies that have included carbohydrate in the diet. Just based on this information, I can't really say what saturated fatty acids should be included and which should not because these recommendations would not apply to people following a low-carb lifestyle.
However, with that said, the topic of my upcoming PhD dissertation project is to determine whether or not saturated fatty acids should be excluded from a low-carb diet. With the help of Dr. Volek and my fellow lab mates, I'm going to conduct a study that will look at a low-carb diet rich in saturated fatty acids with one that is rich in unsaturated fatty acids and see what happens to all risk factors for disease such as inflammatory markers, cell membrane composition, insulin sensitivity and blood cholesterol levels. Hopefully the results of this research will result in more investigations that will look at specific types of saturated fatty acids and how they effect health.
7. Your research experience combined with your writing talents (which are on full display at your remarkable blog located at CassandraForsythe.com) come in very handy with your contributions to some major health publications like Men's Health. You are helping to educate the public about why they should consider livin' la vida low-carb as their way to manage their weight and health. Where do you see low-carb living as a cultural phenomenon going in a year, five years, and even ten years from now? Will people ever really find out what "low-carb" means rather than what the media and the so-called health "experts" want them to believe about it (i.e. just eating bacon, eggs, and cheese all day)?
Right now I think that low-carb is unfortunately still viewed as a bit of a "fad" (even though we know that it's not that at all). However, there are several prolific people in our low-carb circle that are making huge strides for the benefits of following a low-carb lifestyle.
For example, as you know, Adam Campbell, the Men's Health sports and nutrition editor, has become a loud voice for low-carb. Through the magazine, he has the opportunity to reach out to thousands of people and tell them the truth behind carbs and the benefits of keeping carbs low. He wrote an amazing piece a few months back called "The Cure for Diabetes" that even made the ADA turn their heads! We've then got the brains in the Nutrition and Metabolism Society fighting the good fight for low-carb and providing all the science to back up everything that is stated.
So, in my opinion, with all this power behind low-carb science, I think in five years, low-carb is going to become less of a "fad" and more of a way of life. Then, in ten years, our nutrition-governing bodies will finally accept low-carb as a way to treat certain health conditions like diabetes and certain forms of heart disease. (and I'm looking forward to being a part of that acceptance!)
8. What role do you plan on playing in the low-carb scientific realm after your work at the University of Connecticut is finished? Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life?
After I'm done my degree here at UConn, I do plan on continuing researching low-carb. Ideally, I'd like to continue working with Jeff Volek. Dr. Volek is a brilliant person and has been an amazing mentor to me. He and I think very much the same and have many common interests. He's also a very hard worker and someone that gets the job done right every time. I've been fortunate to grow under his supervision.
Once I'm officially a doctor, I will make it my top priority to either continue working at UConn or start a line of research on low-carb in a lab at another University with Dr. Volek as a co-investigator.
As far as topics are concerned, I'm still interested in the quality of fat on a low-carb diet, meaning, since low-carb is going to become a way of life for many people, I want to help them understand what types of fat they should focus on so that they maximize their health benefits. So, this means continued research along the lines of my PhD dissertation project.
9. You are currently serving as the student representative for the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). What a platform for sharing the message of livin' la vida low-carb in an arena that may not know how well this way of eating functions for people who are active. Are there any specific areas of interest for you in terms of fitness that light your fire for telling people about low-carb?
Yes, the ISSN is an awesome organization and I was so thrilled when I was voted at the new student representative. Since I've been involved with the ISSN, I've shared much of our research at UConn with people attending the various regional and international scientific meetings. Last year, I presented partial data from our low-carb and exercise study and it was very well received by the audience.
With regards to fitness and low-carb, I'm very passionate about informing people that if you're a physically active individual, you DO NOT have to follow a high-carb diet! It is very possible and extremely effective to follow a low-carb diet, even if you're someone who is a long-distance endurance athlete or even someone who lifts heavy weights. Ultimately, just because you're an athlete, does not automatically mean you have to eat oodles of carbs just to be successful.
Here at UConn, we're in the process of completing a study with low-carb and weight training and have not seen any negative effects on performance from following a low-carb lifestyle. In fact, the results are even better when people who are insensitive to carbs switch to low-carb and add exercise. However, this doesn't mean that every athlete should not eat carbs, or has to follow a low-carb diet. It just means that a low-carb diet is a good option for athletes and should be considered as an alternative to a typical carbo-loaded diet without any negative consequences.
10. WOW, what an honor it was to have you with us today, Cassandra...er, I mean the future Dr. Forsythe! I have a feeling we will be hearing a lot more from Dr. Cassandra Forsythe for many years to come and frankly I'm glad to have you working in the trenches bringing this fabulous research on low-carb to the forefront. Do you have anything encouraging and uplifting to share with any of my readers who may feel livin' la vida low-carb just isn't worth it to them anymore?
Yes, I do. The benefits of a low-carb lifestyle for those who need it are so powerful that we're only just beginning to understand all of it's effects. These benefits positively effect things in your body that you can not see, but positively effect everything about your health. These things include changes in the way your genes are expressed to changes in the health of your cell membranes.
Although you can't see these things, they're changing the quality of your life for the better. Living a low carb life isn't about cutting out things in your diet that you think taste good (i.e. cookies and cake), it's about changing the way you eat so that every aspect of your body is healthy, wealthy and full of energy.
Are you as inspired by this young lady as I am? If so, then please share your feedback with her by clicking on the comments link below or you can e-mail her directly at Cassandra.Forsythe@uconn.edu. Let her know how much you appreciate her work and encourage her to keep the fire burning deep within her to share the truth about livin' la vida low-carb for many years to come. We are all so very proud of you, Cassandra! YOU GO GIRL!