The ketogenic diet is a mainstream dietary therapy that was developed to reproduce the success and remove the limitations of the non-mainstream use of fasting to treat epilepsy.[Note 2] Although popular in the 1920s and '30s, it was largely abandoned in favour of new anticonvulsant drugs. Most individuals with epilepsy can successfully control their seizures with medication. However, 20–30% fail to achieve such control despite trying a number of different drugs. For this group, and for children in particular, the diet has once again found a role in epilepsy management.
The idea that ketosis is human beings’ natural state is also contradicted by the heavy dependence of human embryonic and fetal development on glucose. All women become insulin resistant during normal pregnancy as glucose is directed toward the developing baby. Pregnant women deprived of carbohydrates are at high risk of developing ketoacidosis in later pregnancy. This dangerous condition can occur as the nutrient needs of the developing fetus reach their peak and drive up maternal ketone production.
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After initiation, the child regularly visits the hospital outpatient clinic where they are seen by the dietitian and neurologist, and various tests and examinations are performed. These are held every three months for the first year and then every six months thereafter. Infants under one year old are seen more frequently, with the initial visit held after just two to four weeks. A period of minor adjustments is necessary to ensure consistent ketosis is maintained and to better adapt the meal plans to the patient. This fine-tuning is typically done over the telephone with the hospital dietitian and includes changing the number of calories, altering the ketogenic ratio, or adding some MCT or coconut oils to a classic diet. Urinary ketone levels are checked daily to detect whether ketosis has been achieved and to confirm that the patient is following the diet, though the level of ketones does not correlate with an anticonvulsant effect. This is performed using ketone test strips containing nitroprusside, which change colour from buff-pink to maroon in the presence of acetoacetate (one of the three ketone bodies).
A ketogenic diet is comprised of approximately 10% of daily calories coming from healthy carbohydrates such as leafy greens, nonstarchy vegetables, and limited amounts of legumes and berries; 20% of daily calories coming from proteins such as omega-3-rich fish and grass-fed animal protein; and ~70% of daily calories coming from high-quality fats such as avocado, unsaturated and medium-chain triglyceride oils, nuts and seeds, and coconut.
To minimize the risk of hypoglycemia, Yancy and his team decrease medication as soon as a patient starts the diet. While drugs like metformin and liraglutide (Victoza) are less of a concern, there are others that pose a substantial hypoglycemia threat. In addition to insulin, the sulfonylurea drugs glipizide and glyburide require a watchful eye, as they work by stimulating the pancreas to make more insulin, increasing the risk of dangerous lows in the face of insufficient carbohydrate intake. “People on this diet need to be prepared to check their blood glucose any time they feel like it could be getting too low,” says Urbanski. “I would say a minimum of twice a day, but ideally three to four times a day, at least in the beginning in order to see the effect of the diet on their blood glucose readings.”
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