What is a Ketogenic Diet?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The ketogenic diet is an alternate treatment for epilepsy that may be particularly useful in children who do not respond well to more than one anti-seizure medication. The diet is based on theories long existing in ancient medicine about the potential health benefits of starvation. From the theories regarding starvation, the ketogenic diet evolved in the 1920s and onward, particularly at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There are now many hospitals that can offer this diet to patients.

Ketogenic diets result in the increased production of ketones by the body when it breaks down fatty acids for energy.
Ketogenic diets result in the increased production of ketones by the body when it breaks down fatty acids for energy.

It should be noted that the diet was just growing in popularity as anti-convulsant medicines began to evolve. Some parents preferred these greatly, and the diet gradually lost popularity. Public interest in the ketogenic diet began to rise again in the 1990s, especially with the release of the Meryl Streep film First Do No Harm.

The basic diet has an interesting calorie composition. 90% of the calories come from fat, and this causes the body to burn fat in order to get its energy, instead of burning sugars. When the body burns fat like this, it is called a ketosis state, and this may be effective in stopping convulsions, at least among some people on the diet.

The ketogenic diet must be rigidly controlled and people could remain on it for several years. Response to the diet is mixed. About 30% of people no longer have seizures, 30% have fewer seizures but still need medication, and the rest appear unaffected by the diet. The food restrictions may be considered too onerous for some families or for kids who are extremely picky eaters, but others might easily be able to adapt. Those who are fans of this method say that inconveniences of a following a rigid diet are well worth it. In particular, those who put their children on the diet may notice they’re more alert, but this may also be from discontinuation of seizure medications, when appropriate.

There is certain plenty of documented medical evidence that the ketogenic diet may be effective for up to a third of patients with epilepsy. However, the diet is not without side effects. Certain vitamins are needed in supplement form because there are so few fruits and vegetables allowed, and there is a risk of developing pancreatitis. Women may also note menstrual cycle disruption because periods may discontinue if the body is convinced it is starving.

As promising as this diet sounds to many people, it is extremely important that people not try to institute the Ketogenic diet on their own. The potential risk of side effects and possible damage this could do are real. The good news is, there are many hospitals that will teach this diet plan and they will monitor people while they’re on it. This would be the safest and most effective to try the treatment and determine if it will work.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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