The keto diet changes the way your body converts food into energy. Eating a lot of fat and very few carbs puts you in ketosis, a metabolic state where your body burns fat instead of carbs for fuel. When your body is unable to get glucose from carbs, your liver converts fatty acids from your diet into ketones, an alternative source of energy. Burning ketones in place of glucose reduces inflammation and spurs weight loss.
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).
Furthermore, humans develop a condition dubbed ‘rabbit starvation’ when they eat a diet that is low in fat and carbohydrates, and high in protein (> 35% of total daily energy intake). This is due to the inability of the human liver to sufficiently upregulate urea synthesis to meet excessive loads of protein. Consequently, hyperaminoacidemia, hyperammonemia, hyperinsulinemia, nausea, diarrhea, and even death can ensue within 2 to 3 weeks. These effects were recognized historically through the excess consumption of lean wild meat by early American explorers.
In Asia, the normal diet includes rice and noodles as the main energy source, making their elimination difficult. Therefore, the MCT-oil form of the diet, which allows more carbohydrate, has proved useful. In India, religious beliefs commonly affect the diet: some patients are vegetarians, will not eat root vegetables or avoid beef. The Indian ketogenic diet is started without a fast due to cultural opposition towards fasting in children. The low-fat, high-carbohydrate nature of the normal Indian and Asian diet means that their ketogenic diets typically have a lower ketogenic ratio (1:1) than in America and Europe. However, they appear to be just as effective.
Despite its explosive popularity, there’s a lot of confusion about what the ketogenic (keto) diet really is. “Many people think they’re following a keto diet when they’re really just consuming a low-carbohydrate diet,” says Patti Urbanski, MEd, RD, CDE, a certified diabetes educator with St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. “So one person’s ‘keto diet’ may look very different than another’s.”
Ketoacidosis, on the other hand, is dangerous. But it’s usually limited to people with type 1 diabetes, striking when their glucose levels rise due to illness or a missed insulin dose. Without insulin, cells can’t take in glucose, so they burn fat for fuel instead, producing exceptionally high ketone levels—much higher than the amount generated by the keto diet. That, in combination with high blood glucose levels, essentially poisons the blood. “It’s very easy to tell the difference between nutritional ketosis, which has no negative symptoms [aside from ‘keto breath,’ which can smell like nail polish remover], and dietary ketoacidosis, which is an illness that requires hospitalization and causes lethargy, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, rapid breathing, and lack of appetite,” says William Yancy, MD, program director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina.
About 20% of children on the ketogenic diet achieve freedom from seizures, and many are able to reduce the use of anticonvulsant drugs or eliminate them altogether. Commonly, at around two years on the diet, or after six months of being seizure-free, the diet may be gradually discontinued over two or three months. This is done by lowering the ketogenic ratio until urinary ketosis is no longer detected, and then lifting all calorie restrictions. This timing and method of discontinuation mimics that of anticonvulsant drug therapy in children, where the child has become seizure-free. When the diet is required to treat certain metabolic diseases, the duration will be longer. The total diet duration is up to the treating ketogenic diet team and parents; durations up to 12 years have been studied and found beneficial.
The keto diet isn’t new, and it’s been around for nearly a century. It was originally developed to treat people with epilepsy. In the 1920s, researchers found that raised levels of ketones in the blood led to fewer epileptic seizures in patients. The keto diet is still used today to treat children with epilepsy who don’t respond well to anti-epileptic drugs.
When you’re eating the foods that get you there (more on that in a minute), your body can enter a state of ketosis in one to three days, she adds. During the diet, the majority of calories you consume come from fat, with a little protein and very little carbohydrates. Ketosis also happens if you eat a very low-calorie diet — think doctor-supervised, only when medically recommended diets of 600 to 800 total calories.