On the ketogenic diet, carbohydrates are restricted and so cannot provide for all the metabolic needs of the body. Instead, fatty acids are used as the major source of fuel. These are used through fatty-acid oxidation in the cell's mitochondria (the energy-producing parts of the cell). Humans can convert some amino acids into glucose by a process called gluconeogenesis, but cannot do this by using fatty acids. Since amino acids are needed to make proteins, which are essential for growth and repair of body tissues, these cannot be used only to produce glucose. This could pose a problem for the brain, since it is normally fuelled solely by glucose, and most fatty acids do not cross the blood–brain barrier. However, the liver can use long-chain fatty acids to synthesise the three ketone bodies β-hydroxybutyrate, acetoacetate and acetone. These ketone bodies enter the brain and partially substitute for blood glucose as a source of energy.
There are theoretically no restrictions on where the ketogenic diet might be used, and it can cost less than modern anticonvulsants. However, fasting and dietary changes are affected by religious and cultural issues. A culture where food is often prepared by grandparents or hired help means more people must be educated about the diet. When families dine together, sharing the same meal, it can be difficult to separate the child's meal. In many countries, food labelling is not mandatory so calculating the proportions of fat, protein and carbohydrate is difficult. In some countries, it may be hard to find sugar-free forms of medicines and supplements, to purchase an accurate electronic scale, or to afford MCT oils.
Because some cancer cells are inefficient in processing ketone bodies for energy, the ketogenic diet has also been suggested as a treatment for cancer. A 2018 review looked at the evidence from preclinical and clinical studies of ketogenic diets in cancer therapy. The clinical studies in humans are typically very small, with some providing weak evidence for anti-tumour effect, particularly for glioblastoma, but in other cancers and studies, no anti-tumour effect was seen. Taken together, results from preclinical studies, albeit sometimes contradictory, tend to support an anti-tumor effect rather than a pro-tumor effect of the KD for most solid cancers.
Wondering what fits into a keto diet — and what doesn’t? “It’s so important to know what foods you’ll be eating before you start, and how to incorporate more fats into your diet,” says Kristen Mancinelli, RD, author of The Ketogenic Diet: A Scientifically Proven Approach to Fast, Healthy Weight Loss, who is based in New York City. We asked her for some guidelines.
Be choosy about carbs. You can decide which ones you eat, and how much. Look for those that are low on the glycemic index (for instance, asparagus is lower on the glycemic index than a potato) or lower in carbs per serving than others. Whole grains are better choices than processed items, because processing removes key nutrients such as fiber, iron, and B vitamins. They may be added back, such as in “enriched” bread.
Variations on the Johns Hopkins protocol are common. The initiation can be performed using outpatient clinics rather than requiring a stay in hospital. Often, no initial fast is used (fasting increases the risk of acidosis, hypoglycaemia, and weight loss). Rather than increasing meal sizes over the three-day initiation, some institutions maintain meal size, but alter the ketogenic ratio from 2:1 to 4:1.
A short-lived increase in seizure frequency may occur during illness or if ketone levels fluctuate. The diet may be modified if seizure frequency remains high, or the child is losing weight. Loss of seizure-control may come from unexpected sources. Even "sugar-free" food can contain carbohydrates such as maltodextrin, sorbitol, starch, and fructose. The sorbitol content of suntan lotion and other skincare products may be high enough for some to be absorbed through the skin and thus negate ketosis.
Many people choose to forgo food from animal sources to varying degrees (e.g. flexitarianism, pescetarianism, vegetarianism, veganism) for health reasons, issues surrounding morality, or to reduce their personal impact on the environment, although some of the public assumptions about which diets have lower impacts are known to be incorrect. Raw foodism is another contemporary trend. These diets may require multivitamin supplements to meet ordinary nutritional needs.
This principle involves eating low-energy-dense foods and can help you lose weight by feeling full on fewer calories. Healthy choices in each of the other food groups in moderate amounts make up the rest of the pyramid — including whole-grain carbohydrates, lean sources of protein such as legumes, fish and low-fat dairy, and heart-healthy unsaturated fats.