In honor of our 40th anniversary this fall, we’ve dug into our archives to find some of our favorite articles written by Natural Gourmet Institute founder, Annemarie Colbin Ph.D. This series will celebrate her teachings on food, science and nutrition, which are now more prominent than ever in the better food movement. Annemarie was a true visionary: inquisitive, intuitive, relentless, progressive and thoughtful. In the late 1970’s, she recovered important facts about food that humanity seems to have misplaced – namely, that what we eat directly impacts our wellbeing, our communities, and our planet.

The article below was written by Annemarie for Free Spirit Magazine. Read on to learn about incorporating the right foods at the right time (like foods high in fat), and why dietary prescriptions should be unique to every individual.

Our dogma in the 20th century is that what is so now, has been, and will always be so. Scientific vision says that the latest research is the right one; yet as soon as new research comes out, it will be obsolete. This paradigm always ignores context. For example, in the last five years, it has been almost dogma that a low-fat diet is a healthy diet. The same people who twenty years ago used to urge us to eat plenty of meat and cheese, now encourage us towards vegetables and low-fat salad dressings. My point here is that it is foolish to establish absolute narrow rules, especially about single ingredients in diets. Context counts.

A low-fat diet is good for people who have eaten lots of meat and cheese and fat during their lives; it will help them rebalance and return to a more healthful equilibrium. On the other hand, a low-fat diet is bad for people who have been eating raw food, fruit, and vegetables for most of their lives. Not only that, a high-fat diet is good for people with neurological disorders, particularly seizures.

It is in fact little known to the general public that dietary modification can help seizure disorders. For example, the medical community has long been aware that fasting improves and even eliminates seizures. In the early 1920’s, R.M. Wilder introduced a diet intended to mimic the psychological effects of fasting. This diet consists of high amounts of fat (as much as 80% of calories) and low amounts of protein and carbohydrates (no more than 20% of calories). Like fasting, it provokes ketosis, the production of certain acids called ketone bodies, which, in the absence of dietary carbohydrates, will be metabolized instead of glucose as fuel for the brain, for this reason it was named the ketogenic diet (KD). Ketosis is demonstrated by testing the urine with dip-and-read sticks available in drug stores.

From early on, the KD showed clinical effectiveness in suppressing and avoiding seizures. I had not heard about this until late 1994, when I read something about the ketogenic diet in a publication. When I discussed this in one of my classes, Carol Ellis, MD, a physician with an interest in alternative medicine, mentioned that she had studied the KD as a seizure controlling technique in medical school 25 years earlier! Unfortunately, as it requires a great deal of effort to follow, and as even small amount of extra carbohydrate can bring on seizures again within 3.5 hours, the KD was eventually neglected in favor of anticonvulsant drugs.

With the recent recognition that diet impacts health, interest in the ketogenic diet has returned. John Hopkins Medical Center is currently using it with great success to treat intractable seizures. In one review of 58 cases, seizure control improved 67% of patients, and 75% of these improved patients continued the diet for at least 18 months. Sixty-four percent had AED (anti-epileptic drugs) reduced, 36% became more alert, and 23% had improved behavior. In St. Louis Children’s Hospital, it was found that 50% of patients on the KD, ranging in age from seven months to 38 years, had become free of seizures, and another 20 to 30% had experienced improvement in control of their seizures.

A version of the KD developed in Booth Hall Children’s Hospital in Manchester, Great Britain, requires that 50 to 70% of calories be given as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), a type of oil, plus 11% as other fats, plus 10% protein and 19% carbohydrate, a more palatable combination. The MCT oil is recommended for frying, grilling, and baking; it is also given as part of an emulsion to be sipped throughout meals, consisting of 200 ml MCT oil, 200 ml water, a teaspoon of powdered gelatin, and skim milk. At first this diet may provoke abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea, but rarely any other adverse effects. When effective, it may permit reduction of anticonvulsant drugs without a return of the seizures.

Some researchers speculate that the high-fat intake helps repair the myelin sheath around the nerves, a structure that is damaged in such widely disparate conditions as multiple sclerosis and adreno-leuko-dystrophy (the illness shown in the movie Lorenzo’s Oil). Children with seizures need to remain very strictly on the diet, with not even the slightest deviation towards carbohydrates, for about two years. After that time, they can slowly widen their food intake somewhat.

At a time when low-fat is the defining factor for “healthy” eating, I find it deliciously ironic that a high-fat diet could help with such a difficult problem as intractable seizures, and that is has been shown to be effective where drugs have failed. As someone once said, all food can be medicine, and all food can be poison; the secret is in using the right food at the right time. And there, my dear friends, lies the rub, and the reason for the many different prescriptions and recommendations in the dietary marketplace. It is essential that we keep an open mind.

References:

Withrow, C.D., “The Ketogenic Diet: Mechanism of Anticonvulsant Action” in Antiepileptic Drugs: Mechanisms of Action, edited by G.H. Glaserm J.K. Penry, and D.M. Woodbury. Raven Press, New York: 1980.

Dodson, W.E., Pensky, AL; DeVivom DC; Goldring, S; and Dodge, PR, “Management of Seizure Disorders: Selected Aspects. Part II.” The Journal of Pediatrics, November 1976, Vol. 89, No. 5. pp. 695-703.

Kinsman SL; Vining WP; Quaskey SA; Mellits D; Freeman JM, “Efficacy of Ketogenic Diet for Intractable Seizure Disorders: Review of 58 Cases.” Pediatric Epilepsy Center, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, MD 21205. Epilepsia 1992 Nov-Dec; 33 (6):1132-6.

Gordon, Neil, “Medium-Chain Triglycerides in a Ketogenic Diet.” Develop. Med. Child Neurol, 1977, 19, 535-544.

Janaki, s., et al, “A Clinical Electroencephalographic Correlation of Seizures on a Ketogenic Diet.” Indian Journal of Medical Research, 7 July 1976.