The keto diet. These days, it’s everywhere — bestsellers and how-to’s line the bookstore shelves, recipe suggestions clog digital newsfeeds and celebrities and influencers all seem to be talking keto. They hail the diet as a road to weight-loss and a way to manage cravings and feel more energetic.
But there’s more to keto than you may realize – the strict regiment of high-fat, moderate protein and low-carbohydrate eating has long been recognized as a first-line defense in treating epilepsy, particularly in children.
Epilepsy generally describes a group of neurological disorders characterized by seizures, or recurring episodes of abnormal activity in the brain that cause uncontrollable behavioral changes of varying duration and degree. Seizures are not only frightening; they can be dangerous and even result in serious physical injury or death. And while there are many and continually evolving pharmacological and surgical treatment approaches to treating seizures, for many it may be as simple as changing the foods they eat.
The idea that food can affect and even improve medical conditions isn’t new. But the particular connection between keto diet and seizures control most recently resurfaced during the 1990s, with publicity from the Charlie Foundation. The foundation was started by Jim and Nancy Abrahams, whose son Charlie was cured of severe intractable epilepsy while on the diet. Today, the diet is used worldwide as an important tool in seizure therapy.
How does it work?
It’s not actually fully known how the keto diet works, although doctors do know that fasting and the diet clearly change how the body uses energy. Consuming foods that are high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carbohydrate forces the body to burn fat for fuel, rather than glucose. During this process, the liver converts fats into fatty acids and ketone bodies. Scientists believe that the diet may work in one or more of three key ways:
- The ketone bodies, particularly acetone, may have anticonvulsant properties.
- The diet may alter neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit energy within the brain.
- The diet may change energy metabolism in the brain or simply provide less energy to the brain so that it won’t support seizures.
Regardless of how it works, the evidence is in: it works. In fact, early studies showed that of the (predominantly) children who’ve been treated with the keto diet, 40-60% had more than a 90% improvement in seizure control (Epilepsy 101: The ultimate Guide for Patients and Families, p…..(see new book)). When looking at a large number of more recent studies together, research shows that 30-40% of people on the ketogenic diet have significant improvement in their seizure control.
What can you eat on keto?
Even though there’s a ton of DIY information online about the ketogenic diet, when used for seizure control it should be administered by a trained and experienced team that includes a physician and a dietician. Essentially, the diet maintains a fat to protein ratio of 4:1 – four grams of fat for every gram of protein. So, a typical day might include food like eggs, meat, salad, nuts and fresh fruit. What won’t it include? Sugars, starchy foods, and grains. Education for the whole family – about appropriate food, weighing/measuring and meal preparation, planning ahead, and watching for signs of trouble – is critical to the diet’s success and effectiveness.
Interesting. How do we get started?
While the benefits of the keto diet for seizure control are clear, it’s not for everyone. You should carefully consider a number of factors before trying it for your child and should definitely consult a physician. What’s more, if the diet isn’t a perfect fit for your child or your family’s lifestyle, there are many ways it can be modified with the help of an experienced dietician.
Want to learn more? Here’s how:
- Epilepsy Foundation ketogenic diet resources
- Johns Hopkins ketogenic diet centers
- Charlie Foundation ketogenic recipes