Fad diets come and go, but some have an enduring appeal that is hard to explain. But when it comes to the ketogenic diet, it’s obvious why it has remained so popular for so long. Its simple, straightforward approach, and excellent host of benefits ensure that people try, and stay on, the ketogenic diet for long periods of time. But the enduring popularity of the ketogenic diet belies its long history. Despite seeing perhaps a peak of interest in Google searches in August of 2018, the ketogenic diet has been a part of human eating habits for hundreds of years. Join Axis Labs as we explore the history of the ketogenic diet!
Ancient Dieting Techniques
Even early civilizations recognized the importance of diet in everyday health and wellness. We know today, thanks to rigorous scientific study, that changes in diet can have a pronounced impact on how we feel. But even in the Hellenistic era, diet was understood to affect us. For instance, the early thinker Pythagoras was well-known for his frequent fasting practices, which he believed enhanced his mental clarity and creativity. Today, we understand that Pythagoras was correct, that fasting can change our brain chemistry in minor ways. Indeed, fasting was seen as the only therapeutic treatment option for epilepsy as recorded in the Hippocratic Collection, a collection of medical practices and ideas collected by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates. Later, in the King James version of the Bible, Jesus is said to have used fasting as a way to treat a boy’s epilepsy. But fasting isn’t exactly the same as the ketogenic diet. However, it can be a part of it. In our beginner’s guide to the keto diet, we noted that you could use fasting as a way to jump-start the ketosis process. That’s because calorie restriction of any kind forces your body to start burning more fats for energy rather than relying on simple carbohydrates and sugars that are easier for the body to burn.
The 20th Century and the Exploration of Ketosis
Centuries later, scientists and researchers again recognized the value of diet on health and wellness. In 1911, a pair of French researchers began using starvation as a treatment option for epilepsy. Gulep and Marie treated 20 adults and children with a fasting diet and found that the seizures were less frequent and less severe while the patients fast. On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, the United States was caught in the throes of perhaps the nation’s first physical fitness craze. Spurred on by larger-than-life characters like Theodore Roosevelt who championed "the vigorous life" of healthy eating and regular exercise, researchers and pseudo-scientists alike advocated for fasting and starvation diets as a way to improve health. In particular, the work of Bernarr Macfadden was influential, as he argued that fasting for three days to three weeks at a time could cure almost any ailment. Macfadden’s work through his fitness magazine, Physical Culture, created an opportunity for Dr. Hugh W. Conklin to start doing legitimate research into fasting and health. Conklin’s work revolved around the effects fasting had on epilepsy, and his results garnered much attention. Other researchers began running similar studies and used diet as a way to improve mental and physical health.
Of course, perhaps the most famous of these early dietary researchers from the early 20th century was Russel Wilder. Working at the Mayo Clinic in 1923, Dr. Wilder was the first to suggest a set dietary plan in order to treat epilepsy. The result was the so-called "Classic Ketogenic Diet." Wilder argued that a 4:1 ratio of fat to protein and carbs was the optimal diet to help lessen the symptoms of epilepsy in children and adults. This 4:1 ratio is seen as the "golden standard" for the classic ketogenic diet. Wilder even went as far to suggest that 90 percent of an individual’s diet should stem from healthy fats, with the remaining 10 percent split between proteins and carbs. Wilder’s diet was met with acclaim. Not only was his method effective in treating epilepsy, but it could also be maintained over a much longer period of time than other starvation or fasting based diets. The classic ketogenic diets reliance on ratios of foods and nutrient sources meant that the diet could be tailored to individual patients to receive the best results. Wilder’s ketogenic diet was widely used in hospitals and healthcare facilities across the country throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was even commonly printed to medical textbooks up until the 1980s.
The Ketogenic Diet Today
Despite the promising results and frequent use of the ketogenic diet throughout the early and mid-20th Century, the eating plan fell by the wayside starting in the 1970s. But in 1993, a two-year-old boy was admitted to John Hopkins Hospital, plagued by intense and frequent seizures. In a last-chance maneuver, Dr. John M. Freeman and Ms. Millicent Kelly put the boy on the ketogenic diet. Perhaps miraculously, the boy’s seizures disappeared. This rapid recovery led to renewed interest in the ketogenic diet. As more study was poured into the process and benefits of ketosis, the diet began being adopted as an effective strategy to treat a variety of conditions and ailments, even for those who did not suffer from epilepsy. Those with Type 2 diabetes and heart disease have found success in following the ketogenic diet. Perhaps more popularly, the ketogenic diet has been embraced by many as an effective and fast way to lose weight.