The original therapeutic diet for paediatric epilepsy provides just enough protein for body growth and repair, and sufficient calories[Note 1] to maintain the correct weight for age and height. The classic therapeutic ketogenic diet was developed for treatment of paediatric epilepsy in the 1920s and was widely used into the next decade, but its popularity waned with the introduction of effective anticonvulsant medications. This classic ketogenic diet contains a 4:1 ratio by weight of fat to combined protein and carbohydrate. This is achieved by excluding high-carbohydrate foods such as starchy fruits and vegetables, bread, pasta, grains, and sugar, while increasing the consumption of foods high in fat such as nuts, cream, and butter. Most dietary fat is made of molecules called long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). However, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)—made from fatty acids with shorter carbon chains than LCTs—are more ketogenic. A variant of the classic diet known as the MCT ketogenic diet uses a form of coconut oil, which is rich in MCTs, to provide around half the calories. As less overall fat is needed in this variant of the diet, a greater proportion of carbohydrate and protein can be consumed, allowing a greater variety of food choices.
“If someone with diabetes is [taking insulin or oral type 2 meds in the sulfonylurea or meglitinide class and is] following this diet, they need to know that their blood sugar can drop really quickly, so it’s critical that they check it more frequently,” says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, CDE, author of Diabetes Meal Planning & Nutrition for Dummies. “Don’t wait for it to happen. Meet with your doctor or diabetes educator in advance so that you can troubleshoot exactly what to do if your blood sugar drops.” If it’s an infrequent occurrence, you may be advised to treat with fast-acting glucose. But frequent lows may require medication adjustments or the addition of more carbs to your eating plan.
Before starting, ask yourself what is really realistic for you, Mattinson suggests. Then get your doctor’s okay. You may also work with a local registered dietitian nutritionist to limit potential nutrient deficiencies and talk about vitamin supplementation, as you won’t be eating whole grains, dairy, or fruit, and will eliminate many veggies. “A diet that eliminates entire food groups is a red flag to me. This isn’t something to take lightly or dive into headfirst with no medical supervision,” she says.
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.
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.
Our human ancestors did not consume high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets and therefore would not have been in diet-induced ketosis. Even the most successful early hunters could not possibly have consumed enough fat to enter ketosis since african wildlife such as wildebeests, warthogs and impalas all have low body fat – well under 10%, and as low as 0.3% in the dry season.
Keto is not hard to follow at all. See, this is why I took my diet and nutrition into my own hands. I have PCOS and the ketogenic diet has worked wonders for me. I’m finally pregnant at the age of 32 and after 11 years of marriage because the ketogenic diet made me lose over 100 lbs and brought my insulin resistance under control. I feel better than I’ve ever felt. Sometimes doctors don’t seem to know as much as they should, or as much as they assume they do, and that’s pretty disturbing. Just like they’re still using the old school and very inaccurate BMI charts that are just pure bs. I’ll just take care of myself outside of certain situations involving illness or injury. I’m doing great on my own.
In the mid-1990s, Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams, whose son's severe epilepsy was effectively controlled by the diet, created the Charlie Foundation to promote it. Publicity included an appearance on NBC's Dateline programme and ...First Do No Harm (1997), a made-for-television film starring Meryl Streep. The foundation sponsored a multicentre research study, the results of which—announced in 1996—marked the beginning of renewed scientific interest in the diet.
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.
Long-term use of the ketogenic diet in children increases the risk of slowed or stunted growth, bone fractures, and kidney stones. The diet reduces levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, which is important for childhood growth. Like many anticonvulsant drugs, the ketogenic diet has an adverse effect on bone health. Many factors may be involved such as acidosis and suppressed growth hormone. About one in 20 children on the ketogenic diet develop kidney stones (compared with one in several thousand for the general population). A class of anticonvulsants known as carbonic anhydrase inhibitors (topiramate, zonisamide) are known to increase the risk of kidney stones, but the combination of these anticonvulsants and the ketogenic diet does not appear to elevate the risk above that of the diet alone. The stones are treatable and do not justify discontinuation of the diet. Johns Hopkins Hospital now gives oral potassium citrate supplements to all ketogenic diet patients, resulting in one-seventh of the incidence of kidney stones. However, this empiric usage has not been tested in a prospective controlled trial. Kidney stone formation (nephrolithiasis) is associated with the diet for four reasons:
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 first modern study of fasting as a treatment for epilepsy was in France in 1911. Twenty epilepsy patients of all ages were "detoxified" by consuming a low-calorie vegetarian diet, combined with periods of fasting and purging. Two benefited enormously, but most failed to maintain compliance with the imposed restrictions. The diet improved the patients' mental capabilities, in contrast to their medication, potassium bromide, which dulled the mind.
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.
Even when exercising at a submaximal level (for example, biking at a moderate speed), heart rate and adrenaline levels rise more when people are eating a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet vs. a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. This results in those on the high fat diet perceiving that they are working harder to achieve the same pace as the high-carbers, and they have much more difficulty speeding up their pace in sprints or climbs.
The remaining calories in the keto diet come from protein — about 1 gram (g) per kilogram of body weight, so a 140-pound woman would need about 64 g of protein total. As for carbs: “Every body is different, but most people maintain ketosis with between 20 and 50 g of net carbs per day,” says Mattinson. Total carbohydrates minus fiber equals net carbs, she explains.
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.
What about fruits and vegetables? All fruits are rich in carbs, but you can have certain fruits (usually berries) in small portions. Vegetables (also rich in carbs) are restricted to leafy greens (such as kale, Swiss chard, spinach), cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, bell peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cucumber, celery, and summer squashes. A cup of chopped broccoli has about six carbs.
Despite the fact that your child will be mostly eating fats, they won’t gain weight. The portions for every item at every meal are extremely precise; one of our dietitians will plan meals for your child with set ratios that should be followed as closely as you would a dosage of medication. Daily meals are also balanced with physical exercise when medically possible.
Some sugar-free candy may seem safe (especially on dirty keto), but can contain the wrong sugar alcohols that could spike your blood glucose. This recipe uses stevia, which ranks much lower on the glycemic index, combined with lemon juice and gelatin for a chewy 3-ingredient gummy candy that still satisfies your sugar cravings. Make sure your gelatin comes from a pastured source to keep this one Bulletproof.
No human population has ever lived in a permanent state of ketosis. Ketogenic diets are dangerous for pregnant women and developing fetuses, and the only human population that has ever subsisted on this dietary pattern advocated by keto diet proponents could only do so because of a genetic mutation that prevents them from going into ketosis. Unfortunately, it has the unintended but unavoidable consequence of reducing the survival prospects of their infants.
One meta-analysis18 incorporating data from 447 participants found that low-carbohydrate diets not only helped individuals lose weight, but also improved their cholesterol. And another meta-analysis,19 citing 17 clinical trials, found that low-carb diets protected against major cardiovascular risk factors. A third study20 including 119 participants found that low-carbohydrate dieters had lower cholesterol than low-fat dieters after one year.
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that in medicine is used primarily to treat difficult-to-control (refractory) epilepsy in children. The diet forces the body to burn fats rather than carbohydrates. Normally, the carbohydrates contained in food are converted into glucose, which is then transported around the body and is particularly important in fueling brain function. However, if little carbohydrate remains in the diet, the liver converts fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies. The ketone bodies pass into the brain and replace glucose as an energy source. An elevated level of ketone bodies in the blood, a state known as ketosis, leads to a reduction in the frequency of epileptic seizures. Around half of children and young people with epilepsy who have tried some form of this diet saw the number of seizures drop by at least half, and the effect persists even after discontinuing the diet. Some evidence indicates that adults with epilepsy may benefit from the diet, and that a less strict regimen, such as a modified Atkins diet, is similarly effective. Potential side effects may include constipation, high cholesterol, growth slowing, acidosis, and kidney stones.
Lurie Children's provides healthcare regardless race, color, religion (creed), sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin (ancestry), or disability. Financial assistance for medically necessary services is based on family income and hospital resources, and is provided to children under age 21 whose primary residence is in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
Even in endurance sports that don’t require sprinting, ketogenic-style diets are disadvantageous according to a ketogenic diet and exercise article published in Sports Medicine: “a high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet may impair exercise performance via reducing the capacity to utilize carbohydrates, which forms a key fuel source for skeletal muscle during intense endurance-type exercise.” The article concluded, “At present there are no data available to suggest that ingestion of ketone bodies during exercise improves athletes’ performance under conditions where evidence-based nutritional strategies are applied appropriately.”
Note: Are you a vegetarian or vegan and want to go on a ketogenic diet? It’s still possible! Just keep in mind that the dietary restrictions can sometimes be a little bit intense. Make sure to plan ahead and prepare to aid your success. To help out, we’ve published articles (with 7 day meal plans included) for both the vegetarian ketogenic diet and the vegan ketogenic diet.
Alison Moodie is a health reporter based in Los Angeles. She has written for numerous outlets including Newsweek, Agence France-Presse, The Daily Mail and HuffPost. For years she covered sustainable business for The Guardian. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she majored in TV news. When she's not working she's doting on her two kids and whipping up Bulletproof-inspired dishes in her kitchen.
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.