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Atkins Foundation grant to fund low-carb diet research

by Beth Krane & Janice Palmer - September 25, 2006

One person's successful diet plan could be a failure for someone else. Could this be linked to their genetic makeup?

With a $450,000 gift from the Dr. Robert C. Atkins Foundation, faculty in the Department of Kinesiology will seek to provide answers to this important question and others.

Jeff Volek, an assistant professor of kinesiology, has received a three-year grant from the Atkins Foundation for further study of low-carb diets.
Photo by Peter Morenus

The gift, providing $150,000 for each of the next three academic years, recognizes the scientific contributions Jeff Volek has made in the area of low-carbohydrate diets, and will further his work.

It will also enhance the research capability of the department's Human Performance Lab by providing additional funding for program support, graduate assistantships, and equipment.

For the past seven years, Volek has worked with kinesiology colleague William Kraemer and Maria-Luz Fernandez of the nutritional sciences department, to compare the effects of a carbohydrate-restricted diet and a standard low-fat diet on weight loss, as well as a variety of risk factors for diabetes and heart disease.

Volek has secured nearly $1 million in research grants to support this line of research, including two previous grants from the Atkins Foundation totaling more than $500,000.

"This gift will help us expand our research into the many facets of carbohydrate restriction for the treatment of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and related metabolic syndromes," says Volek, an assistant professor of kinesiology who also holds an adjunct appointment in the nutritional sciences department.

He is a registered dietitian, and cofounder of the Nutrition and Metabolism Society. The Robert C. Atkins Foundation funds independent scientific research on the role of metabolism and nutrition on a number of diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cancer.

The Neag School is providing full funding for a graduate assistantship for each of the three years covered by the agreement.

Although low-carbohydrate diets continue to be controversial in the media and among nutrition professionals and health organizations, Volek's scientific studies and the work of others point to a complete reversal of understanding.

Originally, carbohydrate restriction was seen primarily as a weight loss stratagem and caused concerns about potential adverse effects on heart disease due to high dietary fat intake.

"However, it is now clear," Volek says, "that carbohydrate restriction has beneficial effects on many risk factors, even in the absence of weight loss and even in the presence of higher fat and saturated fat intake. Current dietary guidelines are primarily based on a 50-year-old hypothesis - and today we know that the balance of evidence indicates the premise had serious shortcomings."

His most recent work, yet to be published, compares a standard diet (according to official dietary guidelines that emphasize reductions in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol) to a diet restricted in carbohydrates.

The research subjects had a condition called metabolic syndrome that put them at higher risk for developing diabetes and heart disease.

According to Volek, his findings point, again, to carbohydrate restriction as having a clear benefit on a large number of health risk factors.

One of his current projects builds on this line of research. Volek is collaborating with Dr. Gualberto Ruaño, president and CEO of Genomas, a biomedical company based in Hartford, to develop personalized diet prescriptions based on genetic data and their potential for the prevention and treatment of disease.

The team recently published a study demonstrating a significant association between weight loss in response to a very low-carbohydrate diet and variability in several genes related to obesity and metabolic control.

The results, published in Nutrition and Metabolism, are the first to demonstrate that variability in genes, related to appetite and metabolic processing of carbohydrate and fat, is associated with weight loss in response to a low-carb diet.

The results also show the potential for using genetic information to personalize diet prescriptions to enhance health.

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