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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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The modified Atkins diet reduces seizure frequency by more than 50% in 43% of patients who try it and by more than 90% in 27% of patients. Few adverse effects have been reported, though cholesterol is increased and the diet has not been studied long term. Although based on a smaller data set (126 adults and children from 11 studies over five centres), these results from 2009 compare favorably with the traditional ketogenic diet.
Here’s what we do know: The keto diet may be useful in treating symptoms of epilepsy, a seizure disorder. “The use of keto in treating epilepsy has the most evidence,” Angelone says. One study conducted by Johns Hopkins Medicine, for example, followed epileptic patients on the keto diet and found that 36 percent of them had a 50 percent reduction in seizures after three months on the diet, and 16 percent were seizure-free. However, experts aren't entirely sure why the keto diet has this affect, she adds.
^ Freeman JM, Vining EP, Pillas DJ, Pyzik PL, Casey JC, Kelly LM. The efficacy of the ketogenic diet—1998: a prospective evaluation of intervention in 150 children. Pediatrics. 1998 Dec;102(6):1358–63. doi:10.1542/peds.102.6.1358. PMID 9832569. https://web.archive.org/web/20040629224858/http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/press/1998/DECEMBER/981207.HTM Lay summary]—JHMI Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Updated 7 December 1998. Cited 6 March 2008.
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A study with an intent-to-treat prospective design was published in 1998 by a team from the Johns Hopkins Hospital and followed-up by a report published in 2001. As with most studies of the ketogenic diet, no control group (patients who did not receive the treatment) was used. The study enrolled 150 children. After three months, 83% of them were still on the diet, 26% had experienced a good reduction in seizures, 31% had had an excellent reduction, and 3% were seizure-free.[Note 7] At 12 months, 55% were still on the diet, 23% had a good response, 20% had an excellent response, and 7% were seizure-free. Those who had discontinued the diet by this stage did so because it was ineffective, too restrictive, or due to illness, and most of those who remained were benefiting from it. The percentage of those still on the diet at two, three, and four years was 39%, 20%, and 12%, respectively. During this period, the most common reason for discontinuing the diet was because the children had become seizure-free or significantly better. At four years, 16% of the original 150 children had a good reduction in seizure frequency, 14% had an excellent reduction, and 13% were seizure-free, though these figures include many who were no longer on the diet. Those remaining on the diet after this duration were typically not seizure-free, but had had an excellent response.
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By cutting carbs, you’ll also cut sugar and simple, refined carbohydrates, which means a steadier supply of energy. (No more sugar highs and crashes!) Once their bodies are used to the diet, “The first thing people report is, ‘Oh my gosh, I have this steady energy and I don’t have the need to snack at 3 p.m. because my energy is waning,’” Nisevich Bede says. Research published in January 2015 in the journal Obesity Review showed that the keto diet may lead to fewer hunger pangs and a lower desire to eat. (3)
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The possible benefits of the diet are impressive, but there are a few potential downsides to note. One is it’s tough to stick to. In fact, in a review of 11 studies involving adults on the keto diet, which was published in January 2015 in the Journal of Clinical Neurology, researchers calculated a 45 percent compliance rate among participants following the approach with the aim of controlling epilepsy. (13) “The diet is pretty hard to follow because it’s a complete shift from what you’re used to,” Nisevich Bede says. Slashing your intake of carbs can also make you feel hungrier than usual — a feeling that can last until you’re three weeks in.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Because women with the infertility condition PCOS are at a greater risk for diabetes and obesity, some clinicians recommend the keto diet, says Taylor Moree, RD, LD, of Balance Fitness and Nutrition in Atlanta. But PCOS is no different from most health conditions mentioned here: Long-term research on the safety is needed.
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.
After initiation, the child regularly visits the hospital outpatient clinic where they are seen by the dietitian and neurologist, and various tests and examinations are performed. These are held every three months for the first year and then every six months thereafter. Infants under one year old are seen more frequently, with the initial visit held after just two to four weeks. A period of minor adjustments is necessary to ensure consistent ketosis is maintained and to better adapt the meal plans to the patient. This fine-tuning is typically done over the telephone with the hospital dietitian and includes changing the number of calories, altering the ketogenic ratio, or adding some MCT or coconut oils to a classic diet. Urinary ketone levels are checked daily to detect whether ketosis has been achieved and to confirm that the patient is following the diet, though the level of ketones does not correlate with an anticonvulsant effect. This is performed using ketone test strips containing nitroprusside, which change colour from buff-pink to maroon in the presence of acetoacetate (one of the three ketone bodies).
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But people who started following the keto diet noticed weight loss for a few reasons: When you eat carbs, your body retains fluid in order to store carbs for energy (you know, in case it needs it). But when you’re not having much in the carb department, you lose this water weight, says Warren. Also, it's easy to go overboard on carbohydrates—but if you're loading up on fat, it may help curb cravings since it keeps you satisfied.
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.