Science of the Heart

Stephen Kolwicz, Assistant Professor of Health and Exercise Physiology

stephen-kolwiczFor people who are seeking to lose weight quickly, the ketogenic diet has been a popular option. The low-carbohydrate diet emphasizes weight loss through fat burning. But what are the long-term consequences on the heart? It’s a question that Stephen Kolwicz, who runs Ursinus’s Heart and Muscle Metabolism (HaMM) lab, is exploring through research.

“The ketogenic diet has been around since the 1920s and was originally developed as a diet for epilepsy,” he said. “And the concept that too many carbs make you gain weight has been around for years. We generally consume more carbs than our bodies need, so there’s some merit to reducing carb intake. But when people have success with it and it gets out there on the Internet, it can spread faster than the research so the longer-term impact on overall health can lag behind.”

The research project was originally pitched to Kolwicz by a student, and Ursinus students were at the center of the research that led to initial data submitted to the American Heart Association for a grant.

In 2020, the AHA awarded Kolwicz with an Institutional Enhancement Award designed to support research into cardiovascular diseases and stroke at educational institutions.

“The heart is very adaptable in the short-term,” Kolwicz said. “It will burn whatever you feed it for energy. But what the keto diet might do years down the road, no one really knows. We had some evidence that the heart wasn’t doing so well and we’re hoping that doing longer-term studies will give us better insight.”

The HaMM Lab provides opportunities for students interested in pursuing research on metabolic adaptations that occur in both cardiac and skeletal muscle. Kolwicz says he keeps his research agenda broad so that “when students come in and have specific interests, we can pursue them.”