The History of the Ketogenic Diet

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In 1921, the Mayo Clinic was on the verge of a massive breakthrough. For centuries, physicians attempted to treat epilepsy through different means of dietary remedies with fasting being one of the most successful treatments. But one doctor suggested that the effects of fasting could be captured in a diet. More specifically, the Ketogenic Diet.

Historic Origins

Epilepsy has confounded humanity since its earliest manifestations in the individuals it plagued. Once attributed to supernatural attacks from evil spirits, the disease soon came under the scrutiny of Hippocrates. The legendary Greek physician was one the first individuals to vocalize the reality of Epilepsy being biological and not spiritual. It was also Hippocrates who would use fasting as a means of correcting the disease.

But Hippocrates wasn’t alone; as history unfolded after Hippocrates, other physicians cited fasting as a means for combating Epilepsy. This is what makes the Ketogenic Diet so incredible: it has been developed over centuries of time, and the physicians who were working to find a cure had no idea! Fortunately for the world, they were on the right track, and this track would lead to the Ketogenic Diet breakthrough of the 20th century.

Early in the 20th century there was a worldwide interest in fasting as a means to treat epilepsy. It peaked when two doctors (Guelpa & Marie) from Paris helped 20 people minimize the effects of their epilepsy and recorded the entire process in a report.

Soon after, the same conclusions were being drawn in the United States when doctors from multiple fields used fasting to improve their patients situations. But you and I both know that while fasting is a great temporary cure, it’s unsustainable.

From Fasting to the Ketogenic Diet

To understand the transition from fasting to dieting, it’s important for you to see the connection that was made by William Lennox of the Harvard Medical School. He observed that the seizures began to subside after 2 – 3 days of fasting – which led him to conclude that the change came from a change in metabolism; more specifically, a change in the body’s fuel.

The body began fueling itself on fat, Lennox suggested. The connection of fat as fuel in the fasting subjects was paramount in the development of the Ketogenic Diet.

In 1921 the endocrinologist, Dr. Rollin Woodyatt, discovered that acetone and beta-hydroxybutyric were present in people who followed a fast or a certain diet that was low in carbs and high in fats.

Keep in mind that acetone and beta-hydroxybutyric are members of the Ketone family; this had a huge impact on Dr. Russell Wilder, who would make another discovery in the same year.

Dr. Wilder realized that though fasting was effective, it wasn’t sustainable. Wilder proposed that the body could produce the same ketone bodies in the blood that it produced during fasting, except with the patient eating regularly. This prolonged state of Ketonemia would be what Wilder termed the Ketogenic Diet.

Dr. Wilder’s discovery of the Ketogenic Diet blew the doors open for innovation! Dr. Peterman, another physician at the Mayo Clinic, was the first to standardize the diet by developing the following calculations:

  • 1g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight
  • 10 – 15 g of carbs per day
  • Fill the rest of the remaining calories with fat

Aside from some mild alterations to the diet, this is basically the same diet practiced today! With Dr. Peterman’s metrics guiding them, other doctors began experimenting with this wonderful new diet that was a godsend for people struggling with epilepsy.

Dr. Peterman also noticed the Ketogenic Diet’s effects on the brain’s performance, noting that people adhering to the Ketogenic diet displayed “a marked change in character, concomitant with the ketosis, a decrease in irritability, and an increased interest and alertness.”

The Ketogenic Diet was impacting the most important parts of the body and science had finally caught up to document the incredible exchange. The Ketogenic Diet became the unquestioned best weapon in the fight against epilepsy. The diet was so effective in fact, that it has been in competition with the pharmaceutical industry since 1938, when the first antiepileptic drugs hit the market.

The next thirty years were bleak for the Ketogenic Diet. Antiepileptic drugs offered epilepsy patients a way around seizures without having to adhere to a strict diet. It seems like many at the time chalked the diet up to be a archaic; used in the time it was pragmatic for, and then retired when something better came along. But there were still those who wanted to prove the worthiness of the Ketogenic Diet.

In 1971, an easier to follow Medium-Chain Triglyceride oil diet was developed in hopes of getting people who were on the fence about the diet to give it a shot, but this attempt proved futile. The problem was that the diet was viewed as beneficial only for the sake of epilepsy patients. Few had thought that it could be utilized for other dieting purposes. People had yet to realize that the Ketogenic Diet was useful for so much more than treating epilepsy; although that was a massive benefit.

Years passed with little to no developments on the subject of the Ketogenic Diet. Antiepileptic drugs ruled the field. That was until a reality shaking episode of Dateline was produced in 1994. Dateline followed a tormented boy named Charlie Abrahams, who had suffered from what seemed like endless seizures for the first two years of his life. His parents tried everything: faith healing, antiepileptics, homeopathic medicine, and even brain surgery. The diagnosis looked grim for poor Charlie.

That was until Charlie’s father, Jim Abrahams, discovered the Ketogenic Diet while researching treatments for epilepsy. Charlie was taken to Johns Hopkins where he began the diet and saw immediate results. Not only was Charlie able to control his seizures, but he also made significant cognitive development that was previously thought unlikely by his doctors. Charlie’s father was confounded. Why hadn’t anyone told them sooner about the diet and its benefits for children with epilepsy?

Realizing that other families could be going through the same thing, Jim took action. He started the Charlie Foundation and began producing resources for other families who were in the fight against epilepsy. The Abrahams could have never known how important their work was going to be. The fact that they managed to bring notoriety back to the Ketogenic Diet and its efficacy for treating epilepsy has reinvigorated interest in the diet.

The Ketogenic Diet’s origins are founded in the pursuit of scientific truth. It is a remedy based on the principle of helping and healing, not making money or creating addicts. Keep pursuing the Keto lifestyle, and show everyone around just how powerful this diet is!

About the Author Nate Arnold

I started this website because it was hard to find trustworthy, evidence-based information about the ketogenic diet. Information that was published and peer reviewed by respected scientific journals. After years of research, I'm sure you'll achieve great results in a healthy way following my advice. I do my best to translate scientific research jargon into plain English. Remember, it's always a good idea to consult a doctor before starting a new diet!

1 thought on “The History of the Ketogenic Diet”

  1. Thanks for the excellent article Nate. Previously, I had been struggling to find accurate resources on the history of ketosis for an article in my own blog. Your article brings it together nicely and gives me several great leads for further research.


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