Modern-day ketogenic diet promoters such as Pete Evans advocate low-carbohydrate diets for babies and children. However, the Inuit practiced exclusive breastfeeding until their children reached 2 years of age, at which time meat was introduced in their diets. In other words, at the time of most rapid brain growth, the low-carb eating Inuit provided their children with the only carbohydrate-rich food available to them – human milk.
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.
Here’s the real kicker: the reason why the Inuit don’t go into ketosis as readily as other ethnic groups is the high prevalence of a deleterious mutation in the CPT1A gene. This mutation permitted adaptation to a high fat, low carbohydrate diet in the sense that those carrying the gene could survive to reproductive age while eating a diet entirely at odds with our evolutionary history. However this gene is associated with high infant mortality rates due to hypoketotic hypoglycemia: when Inuit babies’ blood glucose levels drop, they are unable to utilize ketone bodies to sustain their brains. The very mutation that permits adult survival in extreme circumstances compromises infant health – a powerful example of the trade-offs inherent to evolution. Humans can indeed adapt to an extreme environment and an extreme diet, but that adaptation comes at a high cost.
On your keto food list, stick to low-glycemic sweeteners to avoid spikes in blood sugar, and avoid fillers and binders such as maltodextrin and dextrose, which can spike blood sugar and contain sneaky carbs. Sugar alcohols such as maltitol or xylitol may read as no sugar on a label, but be aware that they will still cause moderate glycemic response when digested.
There are three instances where there’s research to back up a ketogenic diet, including to help control type 2 diabetes, as part of epilepsy treatment, or for weight loss, says Mattinson. “In terms of diabetes, there is some promising research showing that the ketogenic diet may improve glycemic control. It may cause a reduction in A1C — a key test for diabetes that measures a person’s average blood sugar control over two to three months — something that may help you reduce medication use,” she says.
Type 2 diabetes. One study found that being on the keto diet for one year reversed diabetes for up to 60 percent of participants. With an average weight loss of 30 pounds, they dramatically reduced or eliminated their need for insulin and no longer needed oral hypoglycemic drugs. The keto diet is also easier to sustain than the calorie-restricted diet or the protein-sparing modified fast.
"The keto diet is primarily used to help reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures in children. While it also has been tried for weight loss, only short-term results have been studied, and the results have been mixed. We don't know if it works in the long term, nor whether it's safe," warns registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
First appointment: Your first meeting with our team will be a one-hour new patient appointment. You’ll meet our nurse practitioners, social worker and dietitians to discuss the diet’s daily requirements, the initiation process, the length of time your child will be on the diet, how the diet may affect your family and any other questions your family may have. If the ketogenic diet team and your family both agree the diet will be manageable for your family, an initiation is scheduled.
If you’re wondering about the difference between ketosis and diabetic ketoacidosis, you’re not alone. “The word ketone is scary for most people with type 1 diabetes because they relate ketones to diabetic ketoacidosis,” says Patti Urbanski, MEd, RD, CDE, a certified diabetes educator with St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. “But with the ketogenic diet, we’re talking about a much lower level of ketones.”
It seems strange that a diet that calls for more fat can raise “good” cholesterol and lower “bad” cholesterol, but ketogenic diets are linked to just that. It may be because the lower levels of insulin that result from these diets can stop your body from making more cholesterol. That means you’re less likely to have high blood pressure, hardened arteries, heart failure, and other heart conditions. It's unclear, however; how long these effects last.
A Cochrane systematic review in 2018 found and analysed eleven randomized controlled trials of ketogenic diet in people with epilepsy for whom drugs failed to control their seizures. Six of the trials compared a group assigned to a ketogenic diet with a group not assigned to one. The other trials compared types of diets or ways of introducing them to make them more tolerable. In the largest trial of the ketogenic diet with a non-diet control, nearly 38% of the children and young people had half or fewer seizures with the diet compared 6% with the group not assigned to the diet. Two large trials of the Modified Atkins Diet compared to a non-diet control had similar results, with over 50% of children having half or fewer seizures with the diet compared to around 10% in the control group.
Advocates for the diet recommend that it be seriously considered after two medications have failed, as the chance of other drugs succeeding is only 10%. The diet can be considered earlier for some epilepsy and genetic syndromes where it has shown particular usefulness. These include Dravet syndrome, infantile spasms, myoclonic-astatic epilepsy, and tuberous sclerosis complex.
Early studies reported high success rates; in one study in 1925, 60% of patients became seizure-free, and another 35% of patients had a 50% reduction in seizure frequency. These studies generally examined a cohort of patients recently treated by the physician (a retrospective study) and selected patients who had successfully maintained the dietary restrictions. However, these studies are difficult to compare to modern trials. One reason is that these older trials suffered from selection bias, as they excluded patients who were unable to start or maintain the diet and thereby selected from patients who would generate better results. In an attempt to control for this bias, modern study design prefers a prospective cohort (the patients in the study are chosen before therapy begins) in which the results are presented for all patients regardless of whether they started or completed the treatment (known as intent-to-treat analysis).
Because people with type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, there’s a specific concern that the saturated fat in the diet may drive up LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels, and further increase the odds of heart problems. If you have type 2 diabetes, talk to your doctor before attempting a ketogenic diet. They may recommend a different weight-loss diet for you, like a reduced-calorie diet, to manage diabetes. Those with epilepsy should also consult their doctor before using this as part of their treatment plan.