Special Report: Keto diet originally meant to treat epilepsy

When you go to the store, it is hard to not find a food item on the shelf that is for the keto diet.

It has been a popular weight loss plan for years. What you may not know is that the keto diet was not originally intended to trim your waist.

In a FOX 32 special report, Anita Padilla has the scoop on who it was designed for.

Three-year-old Benicio is a high-energy toddler who loves his play time. But it wasn’t always a lot of fun for him.

"He was having all of these seizure types and he had just turned two at that time. So we were very concerned," mother Tina said.

Benicio's seizures started just as COVID kicked in and the country began to lock down. He and his parents were living in California and desperate for answers.

"I reached out to friends here and asked them do you know anyone or what should we do?" Tina said. "And I was so fortunate that through a friend of a friend I found Dr. Nordli and Dr. P."

Little Benicio and his parents immediately picked up and came to Chicago to meet with these doctors at Comer Children’s Hospital. It has one of only a handful of keto diet programs for children in the US.

Dr. Phitsanuwong, or Doctor P for short, is the program's director.

"The ketogenic diet was invented to treat epilepsy," Dr. P said. "It has been used to treat epilepsy for 100 years."

Dr. Douglas Nordli is Benicio's pediatric neurologist.

"It raises the energy levels in the brain. Which it may be counter intuitive but it takes energy to fight off seizures," Dr. Nordli said. "The ketogenic diet provides that energy."


According to Dr. P, the keto diet was developed by a physician at the Mayo Clinic in 1921 and was a popular epilepsy treatment for decades.

"Until the 1960s, 1970s…when anti-seizure medications was invented and people perceived that is easier to do. So the diet lost popularity," Dr. P said.

While many of us would rather pop a pill than count carbs, Benicio's parents say it is worth the work.

"Very hard to be on it but also the benefits are…he has a full life," said father Carlos.

"The main thing was I had to hold my son on a harness and put a hockey helmet on him to try to protect him from all of the falls," Tina said.

Now, Benicio is seizure free. They stopped just a few weeks after starting the keto diet last summer.

Doctors say it is good his parents tried this treatment as quickly as they did.

"It may stop the development of epilepsy in people’s brain," said Dr. Nordli. "So in other words, rather than dampening the seizures, it may correct the underlying problems so it may increase the chances ultimately of someone becoming and remaining seizure free."

Many epilepsy patients start by trying various medications. If they don’t seem to work, then think about switching to the keto diet.

The problem is, "once it gets going, the longer you endure it, the harder it is to stop it," said Dr. Nordli.

It is important to note there is more than one version of the keto diet that can be used to treat different types of epilepsy.

The diet can be used as standalone treatment or in conjunction with medication.

No matter how you use the diet, it must be done under doctor supervision to avoid possible side effects like kidney stones or digestive problems.