Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological disorders after stroke, and affects around 50 million people worldwide. It is diagnosed in a person having recurrent, unprovoked seizures. These occur when cortical neurons fire excessively, hypersynchronously, or both, leading to temporary disruption of normal brain function. This might affect, for example, the muscles, the senses, consciousness, or a combination. A seizure can be focal (confined to one part of the brain) or generalised (spread widely throughout the brain and leading to a loss of consciousness). Epilepsy can occur for a variety of reasons; some forms have been classified into epileptic syndromes, most of which begin in childhood. Epilepsy is considered refractory (not yielding to treatment) when two or three anticonvulsant drugs have failed to control it. About 60% of patients achieve control of their epilepsy with the first drug they use, whereas around 30% do not achieve control with drugs. When drugs fail, other options include epilepsy surgery, vagus nerve stimulation, and the ketogenic diet.
Infants and patients fed via a gastrostomy tube can also be given a ketogenic diet. Parents make up a prescribed powdered formula, such as KetoCal, into a liquid feed. Gastrostomy feeding avoids any issues with palatability, and bottle-fed infants readily accept the ketogenic formula. Some studies have found this liquid feed to be more efficacious and associated with lower total cholesterol than a solid ketogenic diet. KetoCal is a nutritionally complete food containing milk protein and is supplemented with amino acids, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. It is used to administer the 4:1 ratio classic ketogenic diet in children over one year. The formula is available in both 3:1 and 4:1 ratios, either unflavoured or in an artificially sweetened vanilla flavour and is suitable for tube or oral feeding. Other formula products include KetoVolve and Ketonia. Alternatively, a liquid ketogenic diet may be produced by combining Ross Carbohydrate Free soy formula with Microlipid and Polycose.
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.
If you’re looking to get a jump start on your health and fitness goals this year, you may be thinking about trying the ketogenic diet. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase before — it’s a huge diet buzzword — but aren’t sure what it means. Here’s a primer: The ketogenic diet is an eating plan that drives your body into ketosis, a state where the body uses fat as a primary fuel source (instead of carbohydrates), says Stacey Mattinson, RDN, who is based in Austin, Texas.
I think the larger question is why we are seeing such a sudden rash of anti-keto stories. So many of them quote no experts sources and do not provide citations for their claims. Skeptics with little acquaintance with the diet are quoted exclusively instead. From a journalistic perspective, this lack of balance of viewpoints and the failure to back up claims with evidence falls below basic reporting standards. Offenders on this list include even the Harvard School of Public Health, which recently published more than one unsourced, one-sided article on the keto diet (This is in addition to the Lancet Public Health article cited above, by Harvard researchers, which suggests that a low-carb diet kills you). These stories could reflect lazy reporting or they could very well be scare tactics to steer people away from the keto diet. Why would reporters or scientists at Harvard be doing such a thing? That’s material for another post. Stay tuned.
The popular low-carb diets (such as Atkins or Paleo) modify a true keto diet. But they come with the same risks if you overdo it on fats and proteins and lay off the carbs. So why do people follow the diets? "They're everywhere, and people hear anecdotally that they work," McManus says. Theories about short-term low-carb diet success include lower appetite because fat burns slower than carbs. "But again, we don't know about the long term," she says. "And eating a restrictive diet, no matter what the plan, is difficult to sustain. Once you resume a normal diet, the weight will likely return."
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 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.
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.
Missing Nutrients. One of the biggest concerns for dietitians is the keto diet’s lack of key foods. Many question the eating plan’s impact on the development of certain chronic diseases. Without milk, for example, getting enough calcium and vitamin D for sturdy bones becomes a challenge. Take away whole grains, fruit, beans, and potatoes, and it’s nearly impossible to consume enough potassium for healthy blood pressure or enough fiber to stay regular. And unless you’re eating lots of low-carb, leafy green vegetables, you miss out on vitamins A, C, K, and folate, too.
In fact, patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) have been shown to improve after eating very low carbohydrate diets.31, 32 Another study found increased carb-intake worsened GERD, while a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet reduced symptoms.33 And two studies have linked esophageal diseases, including Barrett’s esophagus (BE)34 and GERD,35 to sugar and carbohydrate intake.
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).
Normal dietary fat contains mostly long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are more ketogenic than LCTs because they generate more ketones per unit of energy when metabolised. Their use allows for a diet with a lower proportion of fat and a greater proportion of protein and carbohydrate, leading to more food choices and larger portion sizes. The original MCT diet developed by Peter Huttenlocher in the 1970s derived 60% of its calories from MCT oil. Consuming that quantity of MCT oil caused abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting in some children. A figure of 45% is regarded as a balance between achieving good ketosis and minimising gastrointestinal complaints. The classical and modified MCT ketogenic diets are equally effective and differences in tolerability are not statistically significant. The MCT diet is less popular in the United States; MCT oil is more expensive than other dietary fats and is not covered by insurance companies.
The ketogenic diet is not a benign, holistic, or natural treatment for epilepsy; as with any serious medical therapy, complications may result. These are generally less severe and less frequent than with anticonvulsant medication or surgery. Common but easily treatable short-term side effects include constipation, low-grade acidosis, and hypoglycaemia if an initial fast is undertaken. Raised levels of lipids in the blood affect up to 60% of children and cholesterol levels may increase by around 30%. This can be treated by changes to the fat content of the diet, such as from saturated fats towards polyunsaturated fats, and if persistent, by lowering the ketogenic ratio. Supplements are necessary to counter the dietary deficiency of many micronutrients.
A slew of articles in recent months have referred to the ketogenic diet as a “fad” or “trend.” It’s “dangerous,” claimed one article, and an anonymous post by the Harvard Public School of Public Health said the diet “comes with serious risks.”1 Yet strangely, these critics seldom cite scientists or doctors who work with the diet, and many—including the Harvard article—cite no medical literature to substantiate their allegations. Without substantiation, many simply rehash long-contradicted, outdated claims.
The ketogenic diet may seem like the latest weight-loss craze, but it’s actually been around for nearly a century. Developed in the 1920s, this ultra-low-carb, high-fat eating plan was originally used to treat seizures in people with epilepsy. Today, it’s getting some serious attention for an entirely different reason. “There’s growing research showing that the ketogenic diet is effective for managing blood sugar in people with diabetes,” says William Yancy, MD, program director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina. “However, because we don’t have studies [lasting] longer than two or three years, we don’t know what can happen with regard to complications over longer periods of time.”
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.
For patients who benefit, half achieve a seizure reduction within five days (if the diet starts with an initial fast of one to two days), three-quarters achieve a reduction within two weeks, and 90% achieve a reduction within 23 days. If the diet does not begin with a fast, the time for half of the patients to achieve an improvement is longer (two weeks), but the long-term seizure reduction rates are unaffected. Parents are encouraged to persist with the diet for at least three months before any final consideration is made regarding efficacy.
Reduced hunger. Many people experience a marked reduction in hunger on a keto diet. This may be caused by an increased ability of the body to be fueled by its fat stores. Many people feel great when they eat just once or twice a day, and may automatically end up doing a form of intermittent fasting. This saves time and money, while also speeding up weight loss.