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Behind the fad of the keto diet: A treatment for kids with epilepsy

The backstory of the keto diet has nothing to do with vanity. In fact, the treatment was first used to help kids suffering from seizures.
Credit: Lucas, Liza

ATLANTA — If you're looking to shed a few pounds this spring, you may have come across the popular ketogenic diet, all called the keto diet. A quick search will yield thousands of posts about the high fat, low carb option.

But the backstory of the keto diet has nothing to do with vanity. In fact, the treatment was first used to help kids suffering from seizures. Families like the Reeves have seen the benefits.

"When [Maddox] was seven months old, he had his first seizure," Erin Reeves told 11Alive.

Reeves, who works with pediatric patients with epilepsy at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, was familiar with the signs and protocols for first-time seizures but as a parent, it was a scary experience.

Despite medication and clear scans, Maddox continued to have seizures and in April 2015, the incidents started to worsen.

'He had 22 seizures within a weekend," Reeves said. "We were at max dose of medication. Each seizure kept getting longer and longer, and they were lasting up to ten minutes."

So Reeves turned to Dr. Holt and colleagues at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Egleston for help. Maddox was put on the ketogenic diet, a regimen dating back to the 1920's as a treatment for kids suffering from epilepsy. Despite having taught the regime to other parents, it was a wakeup call for Reeves to implement in her home.

"I didn't realize how much of a life change it would be for me when I got home," she explained.

In fact, the keto diet therapy differs than the diet commonly circulated online for those looking to lose weight. The high fat, low carb balance required Reeves weigh every morsel Maddox eats. She also has to meticulous prepare meals from nutritionist-based recipes designed for Maddox, as well as ensure the 3-year-old eats on time and finishes each meal.

"One chat could mean a seizure for us," Reeves explained.

Experts aren't 100 percent sure why the keto diet works to subside seizures, but the theory is the diet mimics starvation.

"The thought is when the body is starving, the extra firing that's going on in the brain that starts seizures, slows down," Reeves said.

As a result, Maddox has been seizure-free since 2016 and has been able to wean off medication. But unlike the usual start and stop of the newest diet, the keto diet is life-changing for families.

"I think if you're cutting carbs anywhere you're going to lose weight," Reeves said. "But what we do for these kiddos with epilepsy is totally different. It's not just a diet."

According to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, the keto diet isn't a one-size-fits all treatment for epilepsy patients. But the diet does work in approximately half of all children with intractable epilepsy.

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