An epilepsy diet, also known as a ketogenic diet, is a very low carbohydrate, high fat diet used to control seizures. It has been in use since it was introduced by the Mayo Clinic in 1924. Although the diet is very effective, it fell out of favor with physicians when epileptic drugs came on the market.
The diet causes the body's energy systems to switch to fat burning which creates a state in the body called ketosis in which high levels of fat burned products called ketone bodies are circulating in the blood. These ketones or ketone bodies provide a source of fuel for brain cells and somehow sooth the neuronal mechanisms causing the seizures.
Being in ketosis has been shown in many research studies to be effective for children and adults suffering from epilepsy: in 10-25% of cases the dietary treatment completely eliminates seizures, and in most other cases, reduces seizures by 50-90%. This is a track record that no epileptic drug can match, and unlike the drugs, the diet has very few side effects, and those can be managed by a correctly trained physician or dietitian.
For children, the dietary ratio of fat intake is 3-4 times higher than the combined grams of protein and carbohydrate consumed. In adults, the ratio maybe 2-1, given the greater need for protein.
Expert organizations offering information, training and treatment include:
The ketogenic epilepsy diet comes in at least 4 different forms:
The children's ketones are measured and the goal is to adjust the diet so that the urinary ketones are kept in the moderate to high range (80–160 mg/dl). Higher fat to protein ratios have been shown to facilitate better seizure control.
Traditionally, the ketogenic diet was administered with a beginning fasting period, and restrictions on fluids and calorie intake, which made the diet much harder for the patient to bear. The fluid restrictions and anti-seizure medications such may have also contributed to the association of kidney stone development with the diet. As more research is done, current experts now recommend that potassium citrate supplement be administered with the diet.
Another criticism of the diet has to do with slowed growth in children. This is a consequence of dramatically restricting protein on the classic ketogenic diet. Once seizures are controlled,
In addition, a lack of knowledge on nutritional issues and the use of old methods in administering the diets caused some tragic consequences which uneducated people take as a sign the diet is dangerous. Having read the case studies of children who died while on the diet, I believe these deaths had more to do with the quality of the fat and foods provided by the administering staff than the diet itself.
For example, the ketocal powdered shakes used to help simplify the diet administration are created from hydrogenated soybean oils and high fructose corn syrup, both of which have been shown in multiple studies to inflame the liver and pancreas. Giving these types of "long shelf life" products to children who were already ill had unintended consequences, and it is unfortunate that the diet was blamed instead of these badly designed products.
Millions of people put themselves on ketogenic "Atkins" style diets each year, and there has been no epidemic of pancreatitis, so it is logical to place the blame where it belongs: on these inflammatory pseudofoods, and not the ketogenic diet.
Encouragingly, newer users of the ketogenic epilepsy diet are finding that good results can be achieved using real foods, even with lower fat to protein ratios. Some hospitals are pioneering the use of diet variations which allow for more food choices, such as the modified Atkins diet for adults being used at Johns Hopkins.