"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.
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.
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Another difference between older and newer studies is that the type of patients treated with the ketogenic diet has changed over time. When first developed and used, the ketogenic diet was not a treatment of last resort; in contrast, the children in modern studies have already tried and failed a number of anticonvulsant drugs, so may be assumed to have more difficult-to-treat epilepsy. Early and modern studies also differ because the treatment protocol has changed. In older protocols, the diet was initiated with a prolonged fast, designed to lose 5–10% body weight, and heavily restricted the calorie intake. Concerns over child health and growth led to a relaxation of the diet's restrictions. Fluid restriction was once a feature of the diet, but this led to increased risk of constipation and kidney stones, and is no longer considered beneficial.
Professional guidance is important in deciding whether or not the ketogenic diet is the right path based on the individual’s health history and goals, and it's also necessary to routinely monitor ketone levels in the body while on the diet. At Metagenics, we offer a number of resources to help support the ketogenic journey along with several convenient ketogenic supplementation options to help bring convenience and variety to ketogenic living.
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.
Even hibernating bears do not go into ketosis. And predatory animals who undergo extended periods of food deprivation, such as elephant seals, are metabolically resistant to ketosis; instead, they have upregulated gluconeogenesis pathways through which they can steadily produce glucose. This makes perfect sense, since predators’ survival depends on their ability to catch their prey, which usually requires intense bursts of activity. And sprinting capacity is dependent on glucose, as humans who adopt a ketogenic diet quickly discover.
Our bodies are incredibly adaptive to what you put into it – when you overload it with fats and take away carbohydrates, it will begin to burn ketones as the primary energy source. Optimal ketone levels offer many health, weight loss, physical and mental performance benefits.1There are scientifically-backed studies that show the advantage of a low-carb, ketogenic diet over a low-fat diet. One meta-analysis of low-carbohydrate diets showed a large advantage in weight loss. The New England Journal of Medicine study resulted in almost double the weight loss in a long-term study on ketone inducing diets.
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.