In the mid-1990s, Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams, whose son's severe epilepsy was effectively controlled by the diet, created the Charlie Foundation to promote it. Publicity included an appearance on NBC's Dateline programme and ...First Do No Harm (1997), a made-for-television film starring Meryl Streep. The foundation sponsored a multicentre research study, the results of which—announced in 1996—marked the beginning of renewed scientific interest in the diet.
In the 1960s, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) were found to produce more ketone bodies per unit of energy than normal dietary fats (which are mostly long-chain triglycerides). MCTs are more efficiently absorbed and are rapidly transported to the liver via the hepatic portal system rather than the lymphatic system. The severe carbohydrate restrictions of the classic ketogenic diet made it difficult for parents to produce palatable meals that their children would tolerate. In 1971, Peter Huttenlocher devised a ketogenic diet where about 60% of the calories came from the MCT oil, and this allowed more protein and up to three times as much carbohydrate as the classic ketogenic diet. The oil was mixed with at least twice its volume of skimmed milk, chilled, and sipped during the meal or incorporated into food. He tested it on 12 children and adolescents with intractable seizures. Most children improved in both seizure control and alertness, results that were similar to the classic ketogenic diet. Gastrointestinal upset was a problem, which led one patient to abandon the diet, but meals were easier to prepare and better accepted by the children. The MCT diet replaced the classic ketogenic diet in many hospitals, though some devised diets that were a combination of the two.
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Because some cancer cells are inefficient in processing ketone bodies for energy, the ketogenic diet has also been suggested as a treatment for cancer. A 2018 review looked at the evidence from preclinical and clinical studies of ketogenic diets in cancer therapy. The clinical studies in humans are typically very small, with some providing weak evidence for anti-tumour effect, particularly for glioblastoma, but in other cancers and studies, no anti-tumour effect was seen. Taken together, results from preclinical studies, albeit sometimes contradictory, tend to support an anti-tumor effect rather than a pro-tumor effect of the KD for most solid cancers.
These findings were backed up in a 2012 study which had obese diabetics follow a ketogenic diet for 12 months. The researchers found lower fasting glucose levels, improved cholesterol markers and improved HA1c readings. Remember, carbs and glucose are not required when on a ketogenic diet, as stable, clean burning energy is sourced from fat. This makes controlling blood sugar levels near foolproof.
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The keto diet has a massive fan base that has grown at least in part due to the popular Netflix documentary The Magic Pill, which touts a trove of promising keto health benefits. But the fact of the matter is that most of the studies on the keto diet are premature. Meaning: They’re in small populations of humans, or they’re in rats. (And you are very different from a rat.)
The ketogenic diet has recently been investigated a great deal for how it may help prevent or even treat certain cancers. One study found that the ketogenic diet may be a suitable complementary treatment to chemotherapy and radiation in people with cancer. This is due to the fact that it would cause more oxidative stress in cancer cells than in normal cells.
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Variations on the Johns Hopkins protocol are common. The initiation can be performed using outpatient clinics rather than requiring a stay in hospital. Often, no initial fast is used (fasting increases the risk of acidosis, hypoglycaemia, and weight loss). Rather than increasing meal sizes over the three-day initiation, some institutions maintain meal size, but alter the ketogenic ratio from 2:1 to 4:1.
“Combining a super restrictive diet with long periods of non-eating is not good,” says Keatley. “The body will cannibalize its own muscle for energy if intake from food is too low but the body does not differentiate between something like a calf muscle or a heart muscle. Keep in mind all your important organs are made of smooth muscle and going on a diet like this may harm something like your bladder or lungs just as much as provide fat loss.”
The Johns Hopkins Hospital protocol for initiating the ketogenic diet has been widely adopted. It involves a consultation with the patient and their caregivers and, later, a short hospital admission. Because of the risk of complications during ketogenic diet initiation, most centres begin the diet under close medical supervision in the hospital.