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Study shows high fat, low carb diet helps epileptic children

  December 8, 1998

(CNN) -- A 70-year-old, unconventional diet helps many epileptic children, especially those who don't respond to modern medicines, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

In a study involving 150 children with difficult-to-control epilepsy, researchers followed the patients on a ketogenic diet for a year or more. More than half of the patients had a 50 percent or greater reduction in seizures and a quarter experienced a 90 percent improvement.

"Our study shows that despite new and improved anti-convulsant medications on the market, the ketogenic diet is still a viable option for children with difficult to manage epilepsy," said John M. Freeman, principle researcher of the study and professor of pediatric neurology at Johns Hopkins.

Originally developed at Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic in the 1920s, the ketogenic diet was used before the advent of modern anti-convulsant medications to curb seizures in epilepsy patients.

The diet requires exact and careful measurements of all food and calls for high fat intake and low carbohydrate consumption, which causes a condition called ketosis.

Ketosis occurs when the body burns the fat supplied in the diet because there is a limited amount of glucose to burn. Ketones, products left after the fat is burned, build up in the blood and inhibit seizures, although exactly how is unknown.

At the beginning of the Johns Hopkins study, children had an average of 410 seizures per month and had gotten no relief after being treated with an average of six anti-convulsant medications. After a year, 55 percent of the original patients remained on the diet and 27 percent had a greater than 90 percent decrease in seizures.

"Occasionally, children who have uncontrollable seizures go on the diet, remain seizure free for two years, and stay that way even when they have stopped the diet, never having to take more medication. Something is healed. If we knew what and how it healed, then we might know what causes epilepsy," Freeman said.

However, the ketogenic diet shouldn't be the first line of treatment for epileptic children, Freeman said. Seventy percent of the epileptic patients can gain control of their seizures with one medication.

For children whose seizures don't respond to medication, the diet is an effective alternative, but Freeman cautions that it should be used only under controlled circumstances with the appropriate nutritional and medical supervision.

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