I’m looking forward to a few changes come January 1st, and I suspect I’m not the only one. While many seek to modify their diet each new year, some see the hope of 2021 as the perfect kickstart to a radical departure from the status quo. Among hundreds of dietary regimens, the ketogenic diet has exploded in popularity, but scientists and health experts are only beginning to understand its physiologic impact and how it can be used to treat certain medical conditions.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Tara Finnerty, a board-certified ketogenic nutrition specialist. She discussed her experience with the ketogenic diet and highlighted the best resources for literature on keto.
Tara reflected on how widespread the keto diet has become. “Many people are following a keto-way-of-eating, a general low-carb diet for physical performance (professional endurance athletes), general wellness, a personal health strategy to prevent modern chronic degenerative diseases (obesity, diabetes, dementia, etc.), and even a cognitive enhancement strategy (similar to a nootropic effect) by top business executives.”
The ketogenic diet works by providing a different source of fuel for the body. Remember the food pyramid (below)? It once served as a visual guide to healthy eating until it was replaced by “My Plate” — an improved depiction of a balanced diet that emphasizes portion control and was promoted under Michelle Obama’s initiative to reduce childhood obesity.
The base of the food pyramid was composed of 6 to 11 servings per day of carbohydrates including bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. After one consumes a diet rich in carbohydrates, the cells of the body, specifically the muscles and brain, will absorb glucose from the blood as their primary source of energy.
Conversely, the ketogenic diet, which is high in fat and low in carbohydrates, mimics a fasting state. When carbohydrates are no longer available, the body begins to metabolize fats and proteins to supply the brain, muscle, and other tissue with a form of energy called ketones.
That’s the basic mechanism of the keto diet. It’s an alternative fuel source.
As our collective knowledge increases, science is identifying a growing number of people who stand to benefit from the keto diet. The most well-established research involves patients with epilepsy. Not only has the ketogenic diet proven to reduce seizure frequency in a significant portion of children suffering from seizures, but it has also become the standard of care for a number of specific epilepsy syndromes.
I asked Tara if the keto diet was being used to treat other medical conditions in addition to epilepsy. “Absolutely!” she exclaimed, “The ketogenic diet has shown benefit as an adjuvant therapy for certain cancers (glioblastoma multiforme), and there is substantial research in using the diet to treat type 2 diabetes.”
“However,” she cautioned, “I can’t express enough the importance of medical and dietary guidance if you are using the diet as a medical, therapeutic treatment to treat a condition. For example, although people with type 2 diabetes can actually reverse their diabetes, if they self-initiate while on [certain] glucose-lowering medications, they may quickly find themselves in a life-threatening situation.”
Tara stresses self-education on the diet and requires her patients to read The Ketogenic and Modified Atkins Diets co-authored by Eric Kossoff, MD, director of the Pediatric Ketogenic Diet Program at Johns Hopkins. She also recommends a number of sources on the web including The Charlie Foundation, an organization that advances awareness of the ketogenic diet. It is named after Charlie Abrahams whose epilepsy was cured by the keto diet in 1993 at the age of 11 months. Tara has also developed her own website titled, MyFatFueledLife, which features keto recipes, the latest research, and more.