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.
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The nerve impulse is characterised by a great influx of sodium ions through channels in the neuron's cell membrane followed by an efflux of potassium ions through other channels. The neuron is unable to fire again for a short time (known as the refractory period), which is mediated by another potassium channel. The flow through these ion channels is governed by a "gate" which is opened by either a voltage change or a chemical messenger known as a ligand (such as a neurotransmitter). These channels are another target for anticonvulsant drugs.
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When you eat carbs, they are broken down into a form of usable energy called glucose. While in your bloodstream glucose supplies the fuel your muscles need to power you through a workout. Glucose from carbs is either used for immediate energy, supplied to the blood to regulate blood sugar levels or stored in your muscle, liver or fat cells to be used later.
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However, good luck finding a wide variety of food options with zero carbohydrates. Just about every single food that grows in the ground contains carbs – including fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, grains, etc. and they are also found in dairy. These foods also tend to hold the bulk of many essential nutrients your body needs for survival and good health. So it’s probably well advised to include some carbs in your diet. But how many exactly is still (often passionately) debated.
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Patricia Daly is a fully qualified Nutritional Therapist (BA Hons, dipNT, mBANT, mNTOI). She is an experienced nutritional therapist and author, specialising in cancer care and the ketogenic diet in particular. She has worked with hundreds of cancer patients in Ireland and abroad, lectures at the Irish Institute of Nutrition and Health and is a well-regarded speaker at conferences and in cancer centres.
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Protein is not a desirable source of glucose, as its main function is to build and maintain all of the cells in your body (including precious muscle) – this process is essential and cannot be replaced by other macros. This is also why protein is the only macro with a recommended minimum intake. So when protein intake is not high, you have to find other ways to fuel your energy needs. This is where fat comes into play.
Conklin's fasting therapy was adopted by neurologists in mainstream practice. In 1916, a Dr McMurray wrote to the New York Medical Journal claiming to have successfully treated epilepsy patients with a fast, followed by a starch- and sugar-free diet, since 1912. In 1921, prominent endocrinologist Henry Rawle Geyelin reported his experiences to the American Medical Association convention. He had seen Conklin's success first-hand and had attempted to reproduce the results in 36 of his own patients. He achieved similar results despite only having studied the patients for a short time. Further studies in the 1920s indicated that seizures generally returned after the fast. Charles P. Howland, the parent of one of Conklin's successful patients and a wealthy New York corporate lawyer, gave his brother John Elias Howland a gift of $5,000 to study "the ketosis of starvation". As professor of paediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital, John E. Howland used the money to fund research undertaken by neurologist Stanley Cobb and his assistant William G. Lennox.
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The ketogenic diet is calculated by a dietitian for each child. Age, weight, activity levels, culture, and food preferences all affect the meal plan. First, the energy requirements are set at 80–90% of the recommended daily amounts (RDA) for the child's age (the high-fat diet requires less energy to process than a typical high-carbohydrate diet). Highly active children or those with muscle spasticity require more food energy than this; immobile children require less. The ketogenic ratio of the diet compares the weight of fat to the combined weight of carbohydrate and protein. This is typically 4:1, but children who are younger than 18 months, older than 12 years, or who are obese may be started on a 3:1 ratio. Fat is energy-rich, with 9 kcal/g (38 kJ/g) compared to 4 kcal/g (17 kJ/g) for carbohydrate or protein, so portions on the ketogenic diet are smaller than normal. The quantity of fat in the diet can be calculated from the overall energy requirements and the chosen ketogenic ratio. Next, the protein levels are set to allow for growth and body maintenance, and are around 1 g protein for each kg of body weight. Lastly, the amount of carbohydrate is set according to what allowance is left while maintaining the chosen ratio. Any carbohydrate in medications or supplements must be subtracted from this allowance. The total daily amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrate is then evenly divided across the meals.
Fat is also extremely calorically dense, providing twice as many calories, or twice the energy of carbs and protein. This makes it a pretty efficient source of fuel when you need it. And combined, this allows fat to serve as a source of long-lasting, sustainable energy for survival – you can live off your fat stores for much longer than your muscle or carb stores.
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Kristin Parker is an American temporarily living in South Korea. Her role with Team Diet Doctor is customer service. If you have a question or a comment on our social media platforms, website or our Facebook group, she will likely be the one to answer you back! Kristin cooks for a family of four, including two hungry teenage sons. Her keto meal plan yields generous servings of substantial, hearty meals that they all like.
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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.