The keto diet is a science-based low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, high-fat diet with a history dating back to the 20th century/early 1900s. Many people choose the keto diet for weight loss. But keto was first discovered for controlling seizures and there are many other dietary-therapy benefits as well, such as improved neurological functioning, increased mental clarity, and sustained all-day energy. What’s the history of the ketogenic diet, and why is it growing dramatically in popularity among dieters and beyond? We review the history, growth, and relevance of the keto diet.
Early Beginnings: Fasting
If you fast or intermittent fast (don’t eat anything for a period of time), your body will start to produce ketone bodies (ketones) from stored fat to make up for the lack of sugar/carbohydrate energy. Our ancestors recognized the metabolic health benefits of fasting as early as about 500 BC, unwittingly instigating a state of ketosis (when you limit carbohydrate intake and your body uses ketones as its primary fuel source) and leveraging it for a variety of conditions. Following are just a few known historical instances of fasting as medical treatment.
- Ancient Greek doctors used fasting to treat diseases.
- Hippocrates recorded fasting as the only treatment for epilepsy and managing epileptic seizures/seizure control.
- Benjamin Franklin said, “The best of all medicines is resting and fasting.”
- Mark Twain wrote, “A little starvation can really do more for the average sick man than can the best medicines and the best doctors. I do not mean a restricted diet; I mean total abstention from food for one or two days.”
- In 1914, fasting was used for treating type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
- In 1922, an osteopath named Hugh Conklin fasted a number of children with epilepsy for up to 25 days, providing only limited liquids.
The Birth of Keto: A Less Restrictive Treatment for Epilepsy
In the early 1920s, a doctor named Russell Wilder from The Wilder Clinic recognized the dangers of fasting for children and explored different diets to see if something else might elicit a similar response as fasting. He discovered that you can mimic the effects of fasting by avoiding sugar and eating a higher fat, low-carb diet. He tested this diet on children with epilepsy (with a very positive outcome) and his diet became the main pediatric epilepsy treatment for many years. Wilder’s discovery was the birth of the ketogenic diet.
In the 1930s, new anti-convulsion seizure drugs were developed. Patients and doctors found taking medication easier than making diet changes, so these new drugs became the primary treatment of epilepsy.
The Keto Diet’s Second Coming
It wasn’t until the 1970s, when consumers expressed interest in weight loss and dieting, that the ketogenic diet was reborn. But its comeback wasn’t immediate. The following timeline showcases the slow but steady growth in keto popularity and uses.
- 1972: A cardiologist named Dr. Atkins publishes the book Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution expounding his years of medical research on low-carb dieting for weight loss and heart health. This puts the higher fat/low-carb way of eating on the map.
- 1977: Dr. Phinney, a physician and scientist who spent his life studying nutrition, authored The Last Chance Diet— a book promoting a fat and protein drink diet that he developed. However, this drink he created lacked necessary minerals and people became sick, some even dying.
- 1988: Dr. Phinney creates The Optifast Diet—a nutritional program centered around fat and protein drink products he created, but with minerals in it this time. Oprah endorses it and keto research picked up.
- 1990: U.S. television network NBC airs a show about the positive outcome of the ketogenic diet on a two-year-old boy suffering from severe seizures. The show instigates a big spike in PubMed publications relating to keto.
- 1992: An update of Dr. Atkins 1972 book is published. Called Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, it inspires other doctors to publish dieting books based on similar low-carb principles and marks the beginning of the “low-carb craze.”
- 1996: The story of the boy from NBC’s 1990 TV special is made into a movie starring actress Meryl Streep and sparking a renewed scientific interest in the ketogenic diet.
- 2000s (early): The Atkins Diet is rediscovered and the low-carb movement gains momentum.
- 2013: A study published in Science magazine shows the anti-aging and health benefits of a ketogenic diet. This creates a big curiosity towards keto in the paleo and biohacking communities.
- 2015: Famous podcaster Tim Ferriss interviews Dr. D’Agostino,PhD, a keto research scientist, on “Fasting, Ketosis, and the End of Cancer,” pushing the ketogenic diet to the top of Google diet searches, where it has remained ever since.
The Keto Diet Today
There’s been an explosion in the keto low-carbohydrate diet over the past several years, both for personal use and in scientific inquiry. The six-year google search term trend has climbed steadily and continues to climb.
Why is keto so much more than a fad diet? Because the health benefits are mounting far beyond its seizure-free antiepileptic beginnings. There are three big reasons people are going keto:
One major reason many people switch to keto is the weight loss benefit. In the absence of starchy carbs which converts to blood sugar (glucose), your body burns fat as fuel (both dietary fat and body fat). Fat as your primary energy source keeps you stable and satiated throughout the day, and craving less food. Consequently, it’s become a popular diet for battling everything from the bulge to obesity. If you meal plan and eat within your daily recommended macros (aka macronutrients or daily calorie intake broken down into a ratio of fat, protein, and carbs), it also burns excess fat and helps you lose weight fast.
The brain loves ketones. Outside of epilepsy, a keto diet supports other neurological disorders and conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Keto also helps with concentration, memory, focus, cognition, and decreased brain fog.
Researchers are studying keto as an adjunctive dietary treatment for cancer. So far, results are promising. In recent research, keto significantly increased survival time and slowed tumor growth. Tumor types were pancreatic, prostate, gastric, colon, brain, neuroblastoma and lung cancers.
The Final Word
Although originally used as a treatment for seizures and exploring neurology, our predecessors knew the health benefits of a ketogenic diet. Today, keto research is mounting and we are continuously uncovering new, positive side effects and ways in which the keto diet can benefit health and well-being.
Regardless of your reason for interest in the classic ketogenic diet, always consult with your physician or dietitian or nutritionist before beginning a new dietary regimen.