Turning health on its heels

Several weeks back, I woke up on a Sunday morning and read in New York Times Magazine about an epileptic boy, Sam, who used to suffer from more than 100 seizures per day. His father explained how he and his wife had tried many different things to help their son, including drug after drug. Nothing greatly helped while the medications' side effects were varied and problematic.

The parents eventually learned about what's known as a ketogenic (keto) diet. The main feature of the diet is incredibly high fat intake, with just shy of 90 percent of Sam's daily calories coming from fatty foods. The family trained Sam to avoid sugary foods and so-called "fast carbs," which cause blood sugar spikes and set the stage for seizures. They taught him to politely decline these foods and explain to adults they could cause him to have a seizure. On Halloween, Sam collects candy but, upon returning home, trades it in for a present.

The overwhelming majority of Sam's calories come from bacon, heavy cream, macadamia nuts, eggs, coconut oil and other foods that would seem on the surface to lead him toward a life of cardiovascular disease and mucked-up arteries. Research, however, does not support this assumption. Although the boy had somewhat higher blood cholesterol levels, studies on other individuals indicated that their cholesterol and other blood lipid levels didn't lead to cardiovascular disease. Their other blood work appeared fine and further normalized over time.

Sam relies on dietary supplements to provide a range of nutrients lacking in the keto diet, and he also takes stool softeners because the fat-heavy diet leads to constipation. According to the article, he is now experiencing no more than a half-dozen seizures per day. He's learning to ride his bike and is doing well in school.

The result of the keto diet is a radical shift in metabolism: The body relies on fat as a primary fuel, rather than glucose, a simple sugar that is our typical energy source. Though the mechanism through which seizures are averted is not completely understood, this shift to an alternative fuel may be central to the protective effect on the brain. Sam's parents are serious about maintaining this ketogenic diet and use an online keto calculator to make adjustments in Sam's diet and ensure the accuracy of their calculations. They hope Sam will be able to get off the diet in time, as some kids eventually "outgrow" epilepsy.

Though the ketogenic diet isn't new, a lesson I take from Sam's story is that conventional wisdom about health and wellness will continue to be upended. As a result, I occasionally remind my students that the result of studying nutrition may be nearly as many questions as answers.

The other main lesson from this story is that when there's a will, hopefully there's a way. As you embark on your new year, think of the bravery of young Sam. Then get some spring in your step.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. E-mail him at altmanm@sou.edu.

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