Atkins Diet May Help Kids With Epilepsy

Small study found high-protein regimen reduced seizures in patients

TUESDAY, Dec. 9, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The popular low-carbohydrate Atkins diet may help children with epilepsy avoid seizures, say researchers at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

In a small study of six patients on the high-protein regimen, half were nearly seizure-free for up to 20 months.

"It might be a nice tool when other medications fail," says study author Dr. Eric Kossoff, a pediatric neurologist at Hopkins who was to present the findings Dec. 9 at the American Epilepsy Society's annual meeting in Boston.

Dr. Wendy Mitchell, a pediatrics professor in the division of neurology at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, says the study makes an "interesting preliminary observation, which likely will need further investigation."

About 45,000 children under the age of 15 develop epilepsy each year, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.

For years, epileptic children who fail to respond to anti-seizure medication have been put on a special calorie-restricted diet that is high in fat and low in carbohydrates. The so-called ketogenic regimen forces the body to burn fat, instead of glucose, for energy.

Researchers don't know exactly why the diet stops seizures, but it appears to have something to do with ketones produced in the blood when the body metabolizes fat. Those chemicals also keep vital organs functioning during periods of starvation.

The ketogenic diet is very restrictive, limiting both calories and liquid intake. Children are usually admitted to the hospital before being started on the diet and they require careful monitoring for potential side effects, including kidney stones.

The Atkins plan, by contrast, may be more palatable for kids and easier for parents to administer. Developed by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, the controversial diet has gained greater recognition in the wake of recent studies showing it can lead to significant weight loss without harmful medical complications.

Both diets consist of high-fat, low-carb foods such as bacon, eggs and butter, but the Atkins plan does not require patients to restrict calorie intake.

"The biggest similarity and the main reason that this all came about is because both of them create ketosis," Dr. Kossoff explains.

"By learning more about how the Atkins diet works to control seizures, we should learn more about which patients may benefit best from either or both of these diets," he adds in a statement. "It may be, for example, that some of those who can't tolerate the restrictiveness of the ketogenic diet could be helped with Atkins."

In the study, six people with epilepsy, including three children who were 12 and younger, were enrolled in the Atkins trial for at least four months. Five patients maintained ketosis for periods of six weeks to 24 months. Three had reduced seizures and were able to cut back on anti-seizure medications. The other three had either limited improvement or no improvement.

One patient, a 7-year-old who experienced 70 to 80 seizures day, had had only partial success with various anti-convulsants. Over a three-day period after starting the Atkins diet, her seizures stopped completely. Five months later, she remains seizure-free.

The results provide preliminary evidence the Atkins diet may one day have a role in helping children whose seizures don't respond to drug therapy, the researchers say. But because of the study's limited size and duration, the Atkins diet should not be used at this time to replace the ketogenic diet, they caution.

However, the Hopkins scientists began a second, larger study of 20 people with epilepsy this fall.

Parents should not switch an epileptic child to the Atkins plan without first consulting with their medical providers, Kossoff stresses: "This should be done with a dietitian; it should be done with a neurologist," he says.

More information

For more on epilepsy, visit the The Epilepsy Foundation. For more on ketogenic diets, visit the Stanford University Medical Center.

SOURCES: Eric Kossoff, M.D., pediatric neurologist, Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Baltimore; Wendy Mitchell, M.D., professor, clinical neurology, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. Los Angeles; Dec. 9, 2003, presentation, American Epilepsy Society annual meeting, Boston
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