That said, it’s a good idea to work with a doctor or registered dietitian before you start eating keto—and continue to check in with them while you adapt to your new diet, recommends David Nico, PhD, author of Diet Diagnosis. Planning ahead can help you steer clear of nutritional deficiencies that can strike when you cut most carbs out of your diet. And doing so might also help minimize your keto flu symptoms.
Fairly recently, the diet was introduced as a weight-loss diet by an Italian professor of surgery, Dr. Gianfranco Cappello of Sapienza University in Rome. In his 2012 study, about 19,000 dieters received a high-fat liquid diet via a feeding tube inserted down the nose. The study showed an average weight loss of more than 20 pounds in participants, most of whom kept it off for at least a year. The researchers reported a few minor side effects, like fatigue.
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.
But beyond that, experts aren't convinced that the keto diet has any other scientifically proven health benefits. In fact, it may have some distinct downsides. If you follow the keto diet incorrectly, for example (like by eating lots of saturated fats, versus healthy unsaturated fats), you're at risk of raising your cholesterol levels. “The best strategy to keep your heart healthy is to get as much fat as possible from unsaturated sources such as olive, avocado and canola oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives," says Ansel. For some people, it's possible to actually improve cholesterol if the fats in their diet are from varied and healthy sources, says Harvey.
Although many hypotheses have been put forward to explain how the ketogenic diet works, it remains a mystery. Disproven hypotheses include systemic acidosis (high levels of acid in the blood), electrolyte changes and hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose). Although many biochemical changes are known to occur in the brain of a patient on the ketogenic diet, it is not known which of these has an anticonvulsant effect. The lack of understanding in this area is similar to the situation with many anticonvulsant drugs.
Implementing the diet can present difficulties for caregivers and the patient due to the time commitment involved in measuring and planning meals. Since any unplanned eating can potentially break the nutritional balance required, some people find the discipline needed to maintain the diet challenging and unpleasant. Some people terminate the diet or switch to a less demanding diet, like the modified Atkins diet or the low-glycaemic index treatment diet, because they find the difficulties too great.
Together, glycogen loss and low insulin levels can cause us to excrete so much water and sodium that we experience some of the most common keto flu symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, cramping, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues. Fortunately, these symptoms can be avoided by drinking plenty of water and supplementing with the right minerals (more on this later).
When in the hospital, glucose levels are checked several times daily and the patient is monitored for signs of symptomatic ketosis (which can be treated with a small quantity of orange juice). Lack of energy and lethargy are common, but disappear within two weeks. The parents attend classes over the first three full days, which cover nutrition, managing the diet, preparing meals, avoiding sugar, and handling illness. The level of parental education and commitment required is higher than with medication.
If you have diabetes, it’s important to understand the difference between nutritional ketosis and ketoacidosis. Both involve ketones. But ketoacidosis is a dangerous condition that happens when your body doesn’t have enough insulin and ketones build up too much. Symptoms include excessive thirst, urinating often, confusion, and weakness or fatigue. It’s more common for people with type 1 than type 2.
There are three instances where there’s research to back up a ketogenic diet, including to help control type 2 diabetes, as part of epilepsy treatment, or for weight loss, says Mattinson. “In terms of diabetes, there is some promising research showing that the ketogenic diet may improve glycemic control. It may cause a reduction in A1C — a key test for diabetes that measures a person’s average blood sugar control over two to three months — something that may help you reduce medication use,” she says.
Eat potassium-rich keto foods. Potassium is another key mineral that should be on your radar but probably isn’t. This electrolyte is involved in heartbeat regulation, muscle cramping, energy production, bladder control, and body temperature[*]. If you’re feeling any issues connected to these areas, consider adding more potassium-rich foods like avocado, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, zucchini, and pumpkin seeds to your keto meal plan.
"Your body will often shift metabolism when you do something different to it -- but it equalizes -- you see a rapid shift and a return to normal -- and the longer-term studies show normal results in this area," says Sondike. Still, he tells WebMD it's a "smart idea" to take a calcium supplement beginning at the start of your low-carb diet to safeguard against a possible deficiency. Tofu can also be a good source of calcium.
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.
As mentioned, there are a few reasons why the keto diet usually equals weight-loss gold, says Keatley. For starters, people usually reduce their daily caloric intake to about 1,500 calories a day because healthy fats and lean proteins make you feel fuller sooner—and for a longer period of time. And then there’s the fact that it takes more energy to process and burn fat and protein than carbs, so you're burning slightly more calories than you did before. Over time, this can lead to weight loss.
A sudden drop in carbs can lead to a drop in energy levels, with some dieters reporting unusual fatigue, confusion, or brain fog. “The symptoms are from your brain needing to adjust to the new source of energy, while also trying to deal with a drop in electrolyte levels as you lose weight,” says Sharp. It can also cause nausea, stomach pain, cramping, and constipation, as well, due to the diet’s high-fat and low-fiber makeup.
Switching from a high-carb diet to a very-low-carb diet lowers insulin levels in your body. This is not only healthy but also one of the primary goals of a ketogenic diet. When insulin levels are very low, your liver begins converting fat into ketones, which most of your cells can use in place of glucose. When your body is mainly using ketones and fat for energy, you’re in a state of ketosis.
Children who discontinue the diet after achieving seizure freedom have about a 20% risk of seizures returning. The length of time until recurrence is highly variable, but averages two years. This risk of recurrence compares with 10% for resective surgery (where part of the brain is removed) and 30–50% for anticonvulsant therapy. Of those who have a recurrence, just over half can regain freedom from seizures either with anticonvulsants or by returning to the ketogenic diet. Recurrence is more likely if, despite seizure freedom, an electroencephalogram shows epileptiform spikes, which indicate epileptic activity in the brain but are below the level that will cause a seizure. Recurrence is also likely if an MRI scan shows focal abnormalities (for example, as in children with tuberous sclerosis). Such children may remain on the diet longer than average, and children with tuberous sclerosis who achieve seizure freedom could remain on the ketogenic diet indefinitely.
Wondering what fits into a keto diet — and what doesn’t? “It’s so important to know what foods you’ll be eating before you start, and how to incorporate more fats into your diet,” says Kristen Mancinelli, RD, author of The Ketogenic Diet: A Scientifically Proven Approach to Fast, Healthy Weight Loss, who is based in New York City. We asked her for some guidelines.
Still, it can be hard to get enough fat when you first start this diet. Butter, nuts, coconut and olive oils, and fatty cuts of meat are all on the menu. However, don't go overboard with polyunsaturated fats like soybean, corn, or sunflower oil. Keto dieters who increase their intake of those fats often end up with gastrointestinal distress that causes them to jump ship.
More good news: Snacks are totally allowed (and I'm not just talking about carrot sticks). There are plenty of packaged options out there designed for keto fans. FATBAR is one of them. These snack bars have 200 calories, 16 grams of fat, and four grams of net carbs. They're also plant-based and are made with almond or cashew butter, cocoa butter, coconut, pea protein, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds.
The first modern study of fasting as a treatment for epilepsy was in France in 1911. Twenty epilepsy patients of all ages were "detoxified" by consuming a low-calorie vegetarian diet, combined with periods of fasting and purging. Two benefited enormously, but most failed to maintain compliance with the imposed restrictions. The diet improved the patients' mental capabilities, in contrast to their medication, potassium bromide, which dulled the mind.
A well-balanced keto diet includes enough fat so that you are not hungry after a meal, can go for several hours without eating, and have ample energy. Make sure to increase your intake of fat at the start of your keto journey until your body adapts to using fat and ketones for most of its energy needs. Once you’re fat adapted, let your appetite guide you in cutting back on fat a bit until you reach the point where you can easily maintain the balance between hunger and satiety.
The day before admission to hospital, the proportion of carbohydrate in the diet may be decreased and the patient begins fasting after his or her evening meal. On admission, only calorie- and caffeine-free fluids are allowed until dinner, which consists of "eggnog"[Note 8] restricted to one-third of the typical calories for a meal. The following breakfast and lunch are similar, and on the second day, the "eggnog" dinner is increased to two-thirds of a typical meal's caloric content. By the third day, dinner contains the full calorie quota and is a standard ketogenic meal (not "eggnog"). After a ketogenic breakfast on the fourth day, the patient is discharged. Where possible, the patient's current medicines are changed to carbohydrate-free formulations.
About 20% of children on the ketogenic diet achieve freedom from seizures, and many are able to reduce the use of anticonvulsant drugs or eliminate them altogether. Commonly, at around two years on the diet, or after six months of being seizure-free, the diet may be gradually discontinued over two or three months. This is done by lowering the ketogenic ratio until urinary ketosis is no longer detected, and then lifting all calorie restrictions. This timing and method of discontinuation mimics that of anticonvulsant drug therapy in children, where the child has become seizure-free. When the diet is required to treat certain metabolic diseases, the duration will be longer. The total diet duration is up to the treating ketogenic diet team and parents; durations up to 12 years have been studied and found beneficial.
In its 2016 report “Healthy Eating Guidelines & Weight Loss Advice,” the Public Health Collaboration, a U.K. nonprofit, evaluated evidence on low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets. (The keto diet falls under the LCHF umbrella.) Among 53 randomized clinical trials comparing LCHF diets to calorie-counting, low-fat diets, a majority of studies showed greater weight loss for the keto-type diets, along with more beneficial health outcomes. The collaboration recommends weight-loss guidelines that include a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet of real (rather than processed) foods as an acceptable, effective and safe approach.