This is a sponsored guest post.
The keto diet may be all the rage these days, but this low-carb, high-fat diet has actually been around for much longer than most people may know. The history and origins of the keto diet can be traced back to at least 100 years ago when it was first used in the clinical setting and its origins way back to Ancient Greece. In all those many years keto has been around, it was also studied extensively by researchers across the world. Knowing more about the origins and history of this diet can help you understand what this diet is all about, what the arguments behind its use, and how it really works.
About the Keto Diet
The ketogenic (keto) diet is called so because it generates so-called ketone bodies, aka ketones. Ketones are three acidic molecules that your body makes to replace glucose as fuel. These molecules include:
Ketones are produced by the body only when there is not enough glucose to provide energy to the brain and other organs. Drops in glucose can happen during fasting, starvation, long-term alcoholism, and other illnesses. And as researchers would discover, ketone production can be triggered with low-carb diets like keto.
The ketogenic diet was originally developed as a treatment for epilepsy after researchers discovered that ketones reduce seizure frequency. Nowadays, however, the keto diet grew in popularity as a weight-loss diet, but also as a nutritional approach to help control diabetes, migraines, irritable-bowel syndrome, and polycystic ovary syndrome, to name a few.
The diet involves limiting carbohydrates to make up 5-10% of daily calories and increasing fat intake to make up around 60-75% of daily calories. This can be done by eating low-carbohydrate vegetables and making butter, bacon, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty cuts of meat your main meals.
The Origins of the Keto Diet
The origins of the ketogenic diet have been linked to the ancient use of fasting as a treatment for epilepsy. In the fifth century BC, Hippocrates prescribed complete abstinence from food and drink to a man who he described as “seized by epileptic convulsions.” Fasting as an epilepsy cure is also mentioned in the King James Version of the Bible.
James W. Wheless, a pediatric medicine specialist states that the first reports of the use of fasting to cure epilepsy in the early 20th century came from Dr. Hugh W. Conklin, an osteopathic physician who worked as an assistant to Bernarr Macfadden, a physical fitness guru and magazine publisher.
Dr. Conklin had taken the advice of Macfadden to use fasting as a cure-all for many ailments, epilepsy included. In 2019, he managed to cure a 4-year old boy who did not respond to bromides, which were conventional epilepsy medications at the time. The case had attracted the attention of a different doctor called H. Rawle Geyelin, an endocrinologist at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. He used fasting on a larger group of patients to see if he could confirm the results. Dr. Geylin confirmed the efficiency of fasting in 36 patients.
All this has led to a cascade of research into fasting, including how and why it works. Some theories have emerged during that time as well. Dr. Conklin believed epilepsy is an intestinal problem in that toxins from the intestines reach the bloodstream and cause epileptic convulsions. He also believed that complete fasting helps eliminate these toxins.
Researchers in the years to follow showed that the therapeutic effects of fasting actually comes from ketosis and acidosis. And while research was getting closer to understand why fasting works, there was still a major problem: fasting could not be done indefinitely.
The Breakthrough and Early Beginnings
Researchers initially noticed that some patients experience a huge reduction in seizures or even remission after fasting for a period of time (2-20 days). But some patients continued to have seizures once stopping fasting. Dr. A. Goldbloom, a physician at the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Montreal was skeptical of the efficiency of fasting for epilepsy for this very reason.
Then in 1921, Dr. Woodyatt wrote a review article about adjusting diets for diabetes and stated, “acetone, acetic acid, and beta-hydroxybutyric acid appear … in a normal subject by starvation, or a diet containing too low a proportion of carbohydrate and too high a proportion of fat. It (ketoacidosis) appears to be the immediate result of the oxidation of certain fatty acids in the absence of a sufficient proportion of ‘oxidizing’ glucose.”
In the same time frame, Dr. Wilder at the Mayo Clinic using Woodyatt’s suggestions proposed that the health benefits of fasting could be gained if ketone production was produced by other means. He suggested a diet rich in fat and low in carbohydrate and to use such a diet on patients with epilepsy. This way, patients could get the metabolic benefits associated with fasting for longer.
Since then, the keto diet was widely used throughout the 1920s and 1930s but started to fall out of use with the discovery of antiepileptic medication in 1938. The diet was still an alternative therapy for people who did not respond to this medication.
The Keto Diet 50 Years Ago and Now
Despite the success of anti-seizure medicine, interest in the keto diet and other low-carb diets has continued to grow throughout the 20th and the 21st centuries. Other versions of low-carb nutritional approaches have emerged as a result, with the most popular being the Atkins diet. If you want to learn what makes Atkins different from the keto diet, check out this article at Kiss My Keto.
In the 1960s, research found that dietary fats called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) produce more ketones than other dietary fats. Soon after that, beginning in the 1970s, Peter Huttenlocher, a pediatric neurologist created a ketogenic diet where 60% of the calories come from MCT oil. Since MCTs yield more ketones than other dietary fats, this allowed more protein and carbohydrates in the diet. This has helped make the keto diet more palatable, especially for children. Many hospitals soon adopted the MCT keto diet.
However, wide use of the keto diet has decreased considerably until it received media attention in 1994. That’s when NBC aired a program based on a true story of Charlie, a 2-year-old with intractable epilepsy. After countless procedures, Charlie’s seizures continued to go unchecked, and his prognosis was that he will have developmental problems. He was brought to John Hopkins and put on a keto diet, which had made him seizure-free.
Charlie’s story has again sparked interest in keto, and the number of scientific studies has increased over the past two decades. But what’s more, interest in keto has expanded beyond the sphere of epilepsy control.
More and more people are jumping on the keto bandwagon these days to lose weight and cure a wide range of ailments. And as interest in the diet continues to grow, so we’ll likely be seeing research examining many other benefits of this very-low-carb diet.