Physicians of ancient Greece treated diseases, including epilepsy, by altering their patients' diet. An early treatise in the Hippocratic Corpus, On the Sacred Disease, covers the disease; it dates from c. 400 BC. Its author argued against the prevailing view that epilepsy was supernatural in origin and cure, and proposed that dietary therapy had a rational and physical basis.[Note 3] In the same collection, the author of Epidemics describes the case of a man whose epilepsy is cured as quickly as it had appeared, through complete abstinence of food and drink.[Note 4] The royal physician Erasistratus declared, "One inclining to epilepsy should be made to fast without mercy and be put on short rations."[Note 5] Galen believed an "attenuating diet"[Note 6] might afford a cure in mild cases and be helpful in others.
First reported in 2003, the idea of using a form of the Atkins diet to treat epilepsy came about after parents and patients discovered that the induction phase of the Atkins diet controlled seizures. The ketogenic diet team at Johns Hopkins Hospital modified the Atkins diet by removing the aim of achieving weight loss, extending the induction phase indefinitely, and specifically encouraging fat consumption. Compared with the ketogenic diet, the modified Atkins diet (MAD) places no limit on calories or protein, and the lower overall ketogenic ratio (about 1:1) does not need to be consistently maintained by all meals of the day. The MAD does not begin with a fast or with a stay in hospital and requires less dietitian support than the ketogenic diet. Carbohydrates are initially limited to 10 g per day in children or 20 g per day in adults, and are increased to 20–30 g per day after a month or so, depending on the effect on seizure control or tolerance of the restrictions. Like the ketogenic diet, the MAD requires vitamin and mineral supplements and children are carefully and periodically monitored at outpatient clinics.
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The ketogenic diet is a mainstream dietary therapy that was developed to reproduce the success and remove the limitations of the non-mainstream use of fasting to treat epilepsy.[Note 2] Although popular in the 1920s and '30s, it was largely abandoned in favour of new anticonvulsant drugs. Most individuals with epilepsy can successfully control their seizures with medication. However, 20–30% fail to achieve such control despite trying a number of different drugs. For this group, and for children in particular, the diet has once again found a role in epilepsy management.
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A survey in 2005 of 88 paediatric neurologists in the US found that 36% regularly prescribed the diet after three or more drugs had failed, 24% occasionally prescribed the diet as a last resort, 24% had only prescribed the diet in a few rare cases, and 16% had never prescribed the diet. Several possible explanations exist for this gap between evidence and clinical practice. One major factor may be the lack of adequately trained dietitians who are needed to administer a ketogenic diet programme.