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Health Center Today, August 12, 2011

New Book Explores Science Behind a Low Carbohydrate Diet

By Colin Poitras

Photo of Jeffrey S. Volek and Stephen D. Phinney

Jeffrey S. Volek, left, associate professor of kinesiology at UConn, and Stephen D. Phinney, professor of medicine emeritus at UCal-Davis, are co-authors of a book that explores the science behind the health benefits of low carbohydrate living.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Cagnassola and Joe Worsley

As a classically-trained dietitian, associate professor Jeffrey S. Volek’s education was rooted in the traditional food pyramid that has served as the healthy lifestyle guide for generations of Americans.

But at one point in his graduate studies, Volek says he began to discover holes in the low fat diet approach. Significant research pointed to the fact that low carbohydrate diets were an effective approach for weight loss and metabolic health and that an over-emphasis on high carbohydrate foods like bread, cereal, and pasta—the very foundation of the federal government’s recommended food pyramid—may be contributing to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

In short time, Volek was convinced that, for many people, a low carbohydrate diet based on the consumption of high amounts of fat and adequate amounts of protein was healthier and superior to the low fat, carbohydrate-laden nutrition plans popularized by mainstream media and most government experts. His dedication to the science has led him to become one of the country’s foremost experts on low carbohydrate living.

Volek hopes primary care doctors, nurses, dietitians, and others on the front lines of clinical practice, as well as members of the general public, will be equally swayed on the value of low carb living when they explore the science behind the hype in his new book The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable.

Volek, a dietitian-scientist in the Department of Kinesiology in the Neag School of Education, wrote the book with Dr. Stephen D. Phinney, a physician-scientist and professor of medicine emeritus at the University of California, Davis. The two authors have a combined 50 years of research experience on low carb nutrition, and previously published The New Atkins for a New You with Dr. Eric Westman. Volek and Phinney are both New York Times best-selling authors.

“Our thought was that low carbohydrate diets are commonly practiced but seldom taught,” says Volek. “We felt there was a need to have a book that really got into the science behind the low carbohydrate lifestyle. There are many ways to follow a low carbohydrate diet, and not all of them are healthy and effective.”

Low-carb living has a history

The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living explains the history and evolution behind low carbohydrate living, taking time to point out that our Paleolithic ancestors did pretty well with their carnivorous lifestyle dominated by fats and proteins and very few carbs. It wasn’t until about 10,000 years ago that modern humans developed a lifestyle based on the agricultural foods dominant today.

“Ninety-nine percent of our evolution occurred in the context of a low carbohydrate, high fat environment, so if you look at it from that perspective it does not seem like such a radical idea,” says Volek.

Even into modern times, some cultures have lived with little dietary carbohydrate. For example, the Inuit of Northern Canada and the Arctic are one example of an existing population that fares well in a low carbohydrate culture. The average Inuit diet consists of 85 percent fat, 15 percent protein, and very few, if any, carbohydrates; and yet Inuit are known to be able to run 30 miles a day beside their sleds.

“There is a persistent myth that a low carb diet impairs well-being and performance,” says Phinney. “Three decades ago, we described the process of keto-adaptation in a series of peer-reviewed publications. Our research showed that while a week or two of carbohydrate restriction might limit physical performance, after an additional week or two, performance was unimpaired. Thus people following a carbohydrate-restricted diet for months or years are in no way performance-limited.”

Volek says one of the purposes of the book was to counter misinformation. The authors dedicate an entire chapter to addressing common concerns they hear about adopting a low-carbohydrate diet. For instance, the authors write that salt and dietary saturated fat (long considered the two bad boys in the dietary spectrum) are not demons when your body adapts to low carbohydrate living. Contrary to popular belief, dietary sugars and refined starches are not necessary to feed your brain or fuel exercise, the authors say. They also point out that a long-term successful low-carb lifestyle involves much more than simply reducing or cutting off carbs.

“When you eat carbohydrates, your body preferentially uses carbohydrates for fuel and stores the fat,” Volek says. “The opposite occurs when you take those carbohydrates away from your diet. That is why when you consume a low carbohydrate diet you can increase your level of saturated fat or monosaturated fat intake two or three times. You’re not storing fat, you’re burning it.”

Carbohydrates and the insulin response

One of the book’s primary themes centers on the benefits of low carbohydrate eating for people with metabolic syndrome, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and those who are just generally obese.

“At least half the adults in this country and a growing number of adolescents have some degree of insulin resistance,” says Volek. “Someone who is resistant to insulin is intolerant to carbohydrates to some extent. So we believe that reducing carbohydrate intake is the most effective way to address the disease. Think about it, if your body is intolerant to lactose, you remove lactose from your diet. If your body is intolerant to gluten, you remove gluten from your diet. If your body is intolerant to carbohydrates, it only makes sense to minimize carbohydrates.”

Volek explains the benefits of low-carb living for diabetics this way: When an individual with normal insulin response ingests carbohydrates and absorbs it as glucose, the hormone insulin is released. Insulin facilitates glucose uptake into the body’s muscles where it can be stored as glycogen or burned as fuel. In a person who is insulin resistant, the insulin can’t do its job as effectively and the carbohydrates are instead routed to the liver, where it is converted to fat.

“A well formulated low carbohydrate diet can put type 2 diabetes in complete remission,” Volek says. “You can get off medication quickly and control the disease if you can maintain an appropriate level of carbohydrate restriction.”

Volek’s desire to educate people about the benefits of a low carbohydrate lifestyle has not diminished over time despite the steady drumbeat from other experts touting the benefits of the more traditional low fat, high complex carbohydrate diet. But Volek points out that one recent major scientific study that was expected to support the benefits of low fat eating ultimately proved less than convincing. The Women’s Health Initiative study followed nearly 49,000 post-menopausal women over eight years and found that adherence to a low fat diet did not decrease the likelihood of developing diabetes or heart attack, and resulted in only minor weight loss.

Volek hopes that continued research into the health benefits of high-fat, low carbohydrate diets will raise awareness among professionals in the medical and health care communities so that individuals struggling with diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease will know the options available to them.

“There is a need to get this message out to people because it is such a powerful tool and it is completely underutilized,” says Volek. “That is what we are trying to get across to people. This is something that can literally save lives.”

Both print and Kindle versions of The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable can be found at or on