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High fat diet produces positive results for young epilepsy sufferers

A group of Queensland children with epilepsy is responding well to the high fat, very low protein and carbohydrate “ketogenic diet” first discovered in the 1920s.

Thirteen children at Mater and Royal Children’s hospitals who had not been responding to medication to control epileptic seizures were prescribed the strictly controlled diet.

The ketogenic diet works by making fat the body’s primary energy source (rather than carbohydrates and protein), similar to the way the body behaves during illness or fasting. This process creates ketones. While not fully understood, a high ketone state in the body can decrease seizure activity in certain children.

According to Annabel Doolan, Paediatric Dietician for ketogenic diets based at Mater Health Services, the results from the diet in all 13 of the children being monitored have been positive.

Ms Doolan said some children saw instant results on the diet while it took several weeks for any results to be seen in others. The average time for a child to remain on the diet, once it has shown benefit, is two to three years after which time the child is gradually weaned off the diet and back onto a normal diet.

She said the diet involved double cream, butter, oils and mayonnaise, small amounts of fruit and vegetables, and no pasta or bread.

“It is strictly controlled—with absolutely no substitutes, no unplanned snacks, no extra treats and eating out must be planned as the child’s ketogenic meal would need to be brought to the restaurant,” she explained.

“It is very labour-intensive for parents and requires 100 per cent commitment by the whole family, which is one reason it went out of vogue when improved epilepsy medications came along,” Ms Doolan said.

“While only a small number of the children in Brisbane following the diet at the moment are seizure-free as a result of the food intake plan, for other patients we are seeing a reduction in seizures plus other benefits such as a quicker recovery after seizures and improved levels of alertness.”

Ms Doolan’s position was created late last year to provide the ketogenic diet as a non-pharmaceutical treatment option for epilepsy at both children's hospitals. The new cross-site service was an Epilepsy Queensland initiative, with funding provided by Queensland Health.

Ms Doolan said while there were no Queensland statistics yet available, overseas studies showed approximately one third of children given a trial on the diet have 90 per cent or greater reduction in seizures.

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