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The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living

lowIn a sea of mixed-message nutrition and metabolism books, a new text written by two of the leading experts in nutrition and metabolism was recently published. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living is a scientifically solid, research-supported, passionately written book written by Jeff Volek, PhD, RD and Stephen Phinney, MD, PhD. These two gentlemen have not only achieved their reputations by being book-smart, and by working with clients and patients, they have authored many of the most significant research studies on low-carbohydrate nutrition, metabolism and even exercise performance.

This book leaves little room for opinion or varying interpretations of scientific data. While people frequently share their opinion about low-carb and low-fat nutrition, often based on little understanding of the research on the topic, Phinney and Volek address one misunderstanding after another with a “nothing but the truth” approach. Those who are not well-versed in the research on low-carbohydrate living tend to argue a variety of myths, which the authors tackle one after another. Some of the myths addressed in the book include:

The myth that low-carb diets only result in lost water weight: The truth is that in the first few days that can be the case, but compared against low-fat diets, low-carb diets result in more fat loss.

The myth that low-fat diets have been proven to be more beneficial for heart health: Volek and Phinney address many of the most expensive research studies done on diet and how their study results didn’t show what researchers were hoping for. Low-fat diets, in fact, have not been shown to be more beneficial for heart health than low-carb diets. The authors explain clearly what causes changes in cholesterol levels and triglycerides, making it easy for an average reader or a healthcare professional to understand. No surprise, it is not an issue of eating fat that’s the problem.

The idea that low-carbohydrate diets are not appropriate for performance athletes: Volek and Phinney address this head-on in many of their own research studies, not to mention that Phinney, at 61 is known for cycling more than 2000 miles each year and is an avid mountain hiker, so he’s using his research on himself as well.

The belief that low-carbohydrate diets cause individuals to become tired, lethargic, and fuzzy-headed: In the first-two weeks of dieting, this is often the case as the body becomes more adapted to using fat for primary fuel rather than carbohydrate. Understanding an individual’s physiology and how they respond to such diets allows a health professional to guide them through the first two weeks, where people commonly say they feel better than they have in a long time once they’re through the initial adaptation.

The myth that we must eat lots of carbs for brain function: Phinney and Volek address this by providing and easy to understand lesson in how our body creates the minimal carbohydrate needs it has, and how our body learns to use other fuels once we stop overconsuming carbohydrates.

The exaggeration that getting rid of starches eliminates food groups and leads to nutrient deficiencies: Non-starchy vegetables, our best source of nutrients and fiber are strongly encouraged. Nuts, seeds, meat, dairy, eggs and some fruit are part of the recommended plan. These foods provide high levels of necessary nutrients, as the authors discuss.

The misunderstanding of low-carb diets being only for weight loss: As the authors discuss, low-carbohydrate diets hold promise for other health issues beyond overweight and obesity, including metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, hyper tension, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), sleep apnea, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and certain types of seizures.


As beneficial as low-carb diets appear to be for people, the authors point out in several areas of the book that it is about low-carbohydrate living, not a low-carbohydrate “diet.” Those who view low-carb as something to use to get the weight off or to control blood chemistry in the short-term, and go back to their old way of eating once they achieve their goals, will find themselves back where they started in a short period of time. To achieve the health benefits the authors describe, individuals should not view their recommendations as a diet, with an end point, but should understand it is a lifestyle. In addition, the authors stress the fact that the benefits of restricting carbohydrates come after about two weeks. Following the plan for two weeks means adhering to it fully for two weeks, not giving in to occasional birthday cake at work or settling for cereal for breakfast because you’re running late to work.

We are faced with so much misinformation and contradiction in nutrition today. The best way to begin weeding through the misinformation is to learn more. Reading the articles on this site and connecting with a fitness professional or registered dietitian at your local Life Time Fitness can be beneficial, but I would also strongly suggest getting a copy of this book. Read a chapter before you go out to eat or do your weekly grocery shopping. It will probably change the choices you make and the foods you buy. Though “low-carb” was once seen as a fad (even though it’s been used for weight management since the 1800s), The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living makes it difficult to see how we could recommend anything else in today’s society, with the high prevalence of overweight and obesity, and the high numbers of nutrition and lifestyle-related diseases.

Review By: Tom Nikkola, CISSN is the Director of Nutrition and Weight Management at Life Time Fitness. In addition to overseeing the program, he also manages nutritional products, which includes 3rd party brands as well as the Life Time brand. Tom graduated from the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN with a degree in pre-med Biology. He has certifications from the American Council on Exercise (Certified Personal Trainer), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (Certified Personal Trainer, Performance Enhancement Specialist), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach), and the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Certified Sports Nutritionist). Tom has been with Life Time since 2001.  For more articles by Tom Nikkola, go to www.lifetime-weightloss.com/blog.


Interview – Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet.

SNI: What is the biggest misconception about the Paleo diet?

Dr. Cordain: It is commonly assumed that any diet which eliminates three food groups (grains, legumes and dairy) is nutritionally unsound and will end up causing nutrient deficiencies. As I have pointed out in a number of peer review, high impact factor scientific journals, this assumption is in fact incorrect as contemporary diets based solely upon fresh meat, seafood, veggies and fruit actually are more nutrient (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) dense than the USDA Food Pyramid diet (now called My Plate)

SNI: What is the primary difference between the Atkins, Paleo and Ketogenic diets?

Dr. Cordain: The Paleo Diet does not restrict carbohydrate per se, but rather limits carbohydrate intake to the carbs found in fresh fruits and vegetables. Most people never develop ketosis on the Paleo Diet which frequently causes uncomfortable symptoms.

SNI: Are there dietary supplements that you’d recommend to compliment the Paleo diet?

Dr. Cordain: If fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines etc.) arent consumed regularly (3-5 times per week), then I recommend taking fish oil. I also recommend taking at least 2,000 I.U. of vitamin D per day if regular sunlight exposure is not possible. All other supplements are unnecessary because the Paleo Diet is so nutrient dense. In fact, large meta analyses (multiple population studies) show that antioxidant supplements can be harmful and actually increase overall mortality.

SNI: Have you found that the Paleo diet is compatible with athletes who are in heavy training?

Dr. Cordain: Yes. In my book, the Paleo Diet for athletes, we present numerous delicious Paleo food choices which are excellent sources of carbohydrate (yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, dried fruit, fresh fruit) to restore muscle glycogen. Many world class and national caliber endurance and strength athletes have adopted the Paleo Diet.

SNI: What are the effects of the Paleo diet on health and body composition?

Dr. Cordain: All indices of health and well-being improve when people adopt the Paleo Diet. Initially, people have more energy throughout the day; they sleep better and their mental outlook improves. Digestive and skin problems clear up rapidly and virtually all other typical medical indices of health (blood pressure, blood lipids and cholesterol, etc.) normalize after a few months on the diet. Most people notice that their muscle mass and definition improve despite no higher levels of exercise. For overweight or obese subjects, the Paleo diet is one of the most effective dietary plans to facilitate weight loss because it is a high protein, low glycemic load diet. The largest study ever conducted on weight loss diets in both adults and children concluded that high protein, low glycemic load diets were the best way to get weight off and keep it off.
Dr. Cordain received his Ph.D. in Health from the University of Utah in 1981, and has been a Professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University since 1982. He is married and has three sons. Featured on Dateline NBC, the front page of the Wall Street journal, and the New York Times, Loren Cordain is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on the natural human diet of our Stone Age ancestors. He is the author of more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles and abstracts. His research into the health benefits of Stone Age Diets for contemporary people has appeared in the world’s top scientific journals including the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the British Journal of Nutrition, and the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition among others. Dr. Cordain’s popular book, The Paleo Diet, has been widely acclaimed in both the scientific and lay communities. His next book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, was published in October 2005, and discusses how the Paleo Diet can be modified for the high-performance endurance athlete, and lead to improved health and performance. His latest book, The Dietary Cure for Acne, is available in paperback and as an instant download ebook. He is the recent recipient of the Scholarly Excellence award at Colorado State University for his contributions into understanding optimal human nutrition. For more info go to http://thepaleodiet.com