This article was reviewed by Jes Harvey, RD, on November 7, 2019. Harvey is a registered dietitian specializing in the ketogenic diet for children and adults. She is a certified specialist in Pediatric Nutrition and educates children with epilepsy on the ketogenic diet as an anti-seizure medication. Harvey also manages a private nutrition practice consulting adults on the ketogenic way of eating.
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.
No matter what your diet has been before now, keto will be a big change. If you're coming from a standard American diet (SAD), your carbs will go way down, your protein may either go up or down, and your fat will go way up. If you're coming from a bodybuilding-style diet, your fat intake will jump to alarming levels, and your protein will likely drop significantly.
Frederick F. Samaha, M.D., Nayyar Iqbal, M.D., Prakash Seshadri, M.D., Kathryn L. Chicano, C.R.N.P., Denise A. Daily, R.D., Joyce McGrory, C.R.N.P., Terrence Williams, B.S., Monica Williams, B.S., Edward J. Gracely, Ph.D., and Linda Stern, M.D., “A Low-Carbohydrate as Compared with a Low-Fat Diet in Severe Obesity,” N Engl J Med 2003; 348:2074-2081. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa022637.
The confusion between ketosis and ketoacidosis is a prominent reason why many individuals, particularly doctors, steer clear of the keto diet for beginners. It’s important to understand that these are two very DIFFERENT metabolic states. Ketoacidosis may occur in uncontrolled type 1 diabetics (DKA; diabetic ketoacidosis) due to insulin deficiencies. DKA is associated with both elevated blood glucose and ketone levels; due to little to no insulin production, blood glucose cannot enter insulin-dependent cells to be used for energy, and as such, cells become hungry, resulting in uncontrolled ketone production. In turn, a highly acidic environment is created that can have detrimental effects on an individual’s health, possibly resulting in death. It must be echoed that the ketogenic diet, which induces “nutritional” ketosis, is vastly different and should never be confused with DKA. To put this in perspective, a normal state of ketosis, as achieved via the keto diet for beginners may elevate ketones anywhere from 0.3–5mM, while DKA results in ketone levels of about 15mM or higher.
There exists great debate on how to quantify the macronutrient ratios and percentages for a traditional ketogenic diet. Despite numerous opinions, the common and ultimate objective is to develop a diet that is sustainable in achieving the desired outcome (i.e., a state of ketosis). As such, while it is suggested that 65–80% of the total calories come from fat, and 15–30% from protein, these numbers will be optimized according to every individual’s unique metabolic needs. For example, an individual who is trying to achieve a state of ketosis might have a different ratio of macronutrient requirements than someone who is using a ketogenic diet to improve their body composition. Once the body begins to use fat as its primary fuel source, metabolic “keto-adaptation” characterized by increased production of ketones takes place. It is important to note that there is no “optimal” level of ketosis, nor is there a standard macronutrient profile to achieve a ketogenic state, because factors such as activity level, body composition, and desired health and performance outcomes will influence these variables. Although individualized, Ketogenic.com currently offers a Keto Calculator that can help provide you with a starting point on your macronutrients.
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.
The low glycemic index treatment (LGIT) is an attempt to achieve the stable blood glucose levels seen in children on the classic ketogenic diet while using a much less restrictive regimen. The hypothesis is that stable blood glucose may be one of the mechanisms of action involved in the ketogenic diet, which occurs because the absorption of the limited carbohydrates is slowed by the high fat content. Although it is also a high-fat diet (with approximately 60% calories from fat), the LGIT allows more carbohydrate than either the classic ketogenic diet or the modified Atkins diet, approximately 40–60 g per day. However, the types of carbohydrates consumed are restricted to those that have a glycaemic index lower than 50. Like the modified Atkins diet, the LGIT is initiated and maintained at outpatient clinics and does not require precise weighing of food or intensive dietitian support. Both are offered at most centres that run ketogenic diet programmes, and in some centres they are often the primary dietary therapy for adolescents.
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).