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.
Detrimentally, this results in high levels of both ketones and glucose. Extremely high ketone levels in the blood will elicit a dangerous biological environment that can even result in death. It must be clarified that DKA is very different than nutritional ketosis or fasting ketosis; ketone levels cannot be produced at such high levels in healthy individuals as they are with those in DKA.
First reported in 2003, the idea of using a form of the Atkins diet to treat epilepsy came about after parents and patients discovered that the induction phase of the Atkins diet controlled seizures. The ketogenic diet team at Johns Hopkins Hospital modified the Atkins diet by removing the aim of achieving weight loss, extending the induction phase indefinitely, and specifically encouraging fat consumption. Compared with the ketogenic diet, the modified Atkins diet (MAD) places no limit on calories or protein, and the lower overall ketogenic ratio (about 1:1) does not need to be consistently maintained by all meals of the day. The MAD does not begin with a fast or with a stay in hospital and requires less dietitian support than the ketogenic diet. Carbohydrates are initially limited to 10 g per day in children or 20 g per day in adults, and are increased to 20–30 g per day after a month or so, depending on the effect on seizure control or tolerance of the restrictions. Like the ketogenic diet, the MAD requires vitamin and mineral supplements and children are carefully and periodically monitored at outpatient clinics.
A keto diet should be moderately high in protein and will probably be higher in fat, since fat provides the energy that you are no longer getting from carbohydrate. However, too much dietary fat means your body won’t use body fat for energy. Adequate protein is important, but protein above what your body needs can also contribute to excess calories. Avoid low-fat diet products.
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.
Everyone has to find their nutritional sweet spot for producing enough ketones and staying in ketosis, but “the core principle of the diet is to keep carbohydrate intake low enough, so your body continues producing ketones at elevated levels,” says Volek. “Your body adapts to this alternative fuel and becomes very efficient at breaking down and burning fat.”
Because the ketogenic diet alters the body's metabolism, it is a first-line therapy in children with certain congenital metabolic diseases such as pyruvate dehydrogenase (E1) deficiency and glucose transporter 1 deficiency syndrome, which prevent the body from using carbohydrates as fuel, leading to a dependency on ketone bodies. The ketogenic diet is beneficial in treating the seizures and some other symptoms in these diseases and is an absolute indication. However, it is absolutely contraindicated in the treatment of other diseases such as pyruvate carboxylase deficiency, porphyria, and other rare genetic disorders of fat metabolism. Persons with a disorder of fatty acid oxidation are unable to metabolise fatty acids, which replace carbohydrates as the major energy source on the diet. On the ketogenic diet, their bodies would consume their own protein stores for fuel, leading to ketoacidosis, and eventually coma and death.
A systematic review in 2018 looked at 16 studies on the ketogenic diet in adults. It concluded that the treatment was becoming more popular for that group of patients, that the efficacy in adults was similar to children, the side effects relatively mild. However, many patients gave up with the diet, for various reasons, and the quality of evidence was inferior to studies on children. Health issues include high levels of low-density lipoprotein, high total cholesterol, and weight loss.
Lastly, if you're active, you might need to make some adjustments to take that into account. "For the first one to two weeks, temporarily reducing your exercise load can be helpful as your body adjusts to being in ketosis," he says. "Additionally, for those who have an intense workout schedule, carb cycling may be a good option." Carb cycling essentially means you'll increase your carb intake on the days you're doing exercise, ideally just two to three days per week. "While low-carb days may be around 20 to 30 grams of net carbs daily, high-carb days can range all the way up to 100 grams, although it can vary based on your size and activity level," says Dr. Axe. (Related: 8 Things You Need to Know About Exercising on the Keto Diet.)
The answer to this question is often individualized and will depend on the metabolic state of each individual. One can enter a state of ketosis after an overnight fast. However, this slight elevation may not be high enough to allow for your body to efficiently utilize these ketones as a primary fuel source. Over time, as you become more adapted, your body will consistently be producing AND utilizing ketones. For some, this could take as little as one week, however, for others, it could take several weeks to accomplish. The length of time it takes to become keto-adapted also greatly depends on the composition of the ketogenic diet utilized (i.e., 20 grams versus 50 grams of carbohydrates per day) as well as personal activity level.
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).