While there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet, diets with varying macronutrient compositions can help in supporting different health goals. The ketogenic diet, with its high fat, low carbohydrate, and moderate protein intake, has been solidly researched for a number of health applications since the 1920s and has been growing in popularity in recent years. Additional science and the potential for the ketogenic diet in various applications is emerging.
The classic ketogenic diet is not a balanced diet and only contains tiny portions of fresh fruit and vegetables, fortified cereals, and calcium-rich foods. In particular, the B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D must be artificially supplemented. This is achieved by taking two sugar-free supplements designed for the patient's age: a multivitamin with minerals and calcium with vitamin D. A typical day of food for a child on a 4:1 ratio, 1,500 kcal (6,300 kJ) ketogenic diet comprises three small meals and three small snacks:
I’m following the ketogenic diet and I find it very easy, pleasant and varied. I can even say that my diet today is more varied than the previous one. I do not intend to leave this diet and I cannot really see why. My initial focus was not to lose weight, I’ve always been lean, but to feel better, well disposed. And I got it! I am very pleased, I have read a lot about it (including scientific literature) and I have influenced other people who need to lose weight or improve some aspects of their health. But from the beginning I went on my own way, without the help of a nutritionist because I did not want to suffer the influence of others’ ideas.
A computer program such as KetoCalculator may be used to help generate recipes. The meals often have four components: heavy whipping cream, a protein-rich food (typically meat), a fruit or vegetable and a fat such as butter, vegetable oil, or mayonnaise. Only low-carbohydrate fruits and vegetables are allowed, which excludes bananas, potatoes, peas, and corn. Suitable fruits are divided into two groups based on the amount of carbohydrate they contain, and vegetables are similarly divided into two groups. Foods within each of these four groups may be freely substituted to allow for variation without needing to recalculate portion sizes. For example, cooked broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and green beans are all equivalent. Fresh, canned, or frozen foods are equivalent, but raw and cooked vegetables differ, and processed foods are an additional complication. Parents are required to be precise when measuring food quantities on an electronic scale accurate to 1 g. The child must eat the whole meal and cannot have extra portions; any snacks must be incorporated into the meal plan. A small amount of MCT oil may be used to help with constipation or to increase ketosis.
A survey of 1,580 low-carb consumers published in late 2017 by the Journal of Insulin Resistance45 found that while more than 11% of respondents reported using sleep-aids before beginning their low-carb diet, less than 5% reported using them after their diet. Moreover, nearly seven in 10 reported improved quality of sleep after dieting while only 3.4% said their sleep quality had worsened.
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.
A short-lived increase in seizure frequency may occur during illness or if ketone levels fluctuate. The diet may be modified if seizure frequency remains high, or the child is losing weight. Loss of seizure-control may come from unexpected sources. Even "sugar-free" food can contain carbohydrates such as maltodextrin, sorbitol, starch, and fructose. The sorbitol content of suntan lotion and other skincare products may be high enough for some to be absorbed through the skin and thus negate ketosis.
The ketogenic diet is calculated by a dietitian for each child. Age, weight, activity levels, culture, and food preferences all affect the meal plan. First, the energy requirements are set at 80–90% of the recommended daily amounts (RDA) for the child's age (the high-fat diet requires less energy to process than a typical high-carbohydrate diet). Highly active children or those with muscle spasticity require more food energy than this; immobile children require less. The ketogenic ratio of the diet compares the weight of fat to the combined weight of carbohydrate and protein. This is typically 4:1, but children who are younger than 18 months, older than 12 years, or who are obese may be started on a 3:1 ratio. Fat is energy-rich, with 9 kcal/g (38 kJ/g) compared to 4 kcal/g (17 kJ/g) for carbohydrate or protein, so portions on the ketogenic diet are smaller than normal. The quantity of fat in the diet can be calculated from the overall energy requirements and the chosen ketogenic ratio. Next, the protein levels are set to allow for growth and body maintenance, and are around 1 g protein for each kg of body weight. Lastly, the amount of carbohydrate is set according to what allowance is left while maintaining the chosen ratio. Any carbohydrate in medications or supplements must be subtracted from this allowance. The total daily amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrate is then evenly divided across the meals.
Children who discontinue the diet after achieving seizure freedom have about a 20% risk of seizures returning. The length of time until recurrence is highly variable, but averages two years. This risk of recurrence compares with 10% for resective surgery (where part of the brain is removed) and 30–50% for anticonvulsant therapy. Of those who have a recurrence, just over half can regain freedom from seizures either with anticonvulsants or by returning to the ketogenic diet. Recurrence is more likely if, despite seizure freedom, an electroencephalogram shows epileptiform spikes, which indicate epileptic activity in the brain but are below the level that will cause a seizure. Recurrence is also likely if an MRI scan shows focal abnormalities (for example, as in children with tuberous sclerosis). Such children may remain on the diet longer than average, and children with tuberous sclerosis who achieve seizure freedom could remain on the ketogenic diet indefinitely.
As I wrote in op-eds for the Wall Street Journal61 and Medscape,62 the Lancet Public Health study is based on very thin data. The questionnaire underlying the report left out questions regarding popular foods, such as pizza and energy bars, and did not consider alcohol consumption. Moreover, the “low-carb” diet group in this study included people eating up to 37% of calories as carbohydrates—not low-carb according to the latest science. Ultimately, this is the kind of data that can show association but not establish causation, which means it is the kind of data one can use to generate hypotheses but not prove them. This kind of data would never be considered sufficient to approve a drug, for instance. The same standards should be applied to diet. Quite a few researchers, including myself, had our critiques published in Lancet Public Health.63 The authors replied but did not respond to most of the criticisms.
Con: Results can vary depending on how much fluid you drink. By drinking more water, you dilute the concentration of ketones in the urine and thus a lower level of ketones will be detected on the strips. The strips don’t show a precise ketone level. Finally, and most importantly, as you become increasingly keto-adapted and your body reabsorbs ketones from the urine, urine strips may become unreliable, even if you’re in ketosis.