The Keto Diet – A Brief History

The ketogenic diet is a science-based diet dating back to the early 1900’s.

A ketogenic diet was first used therapeutically for controlling seizures in patients, especially children that were not responding to medication. Other benefits were also noted, significant, sustainable weight loss, increased energy and mental clarity, and improved neurological function. 

There is now a growing popularity both with practitioners and patients. Why? 

Ketogenic Beginnings: Fasting

When a diet is abundant in carbohydrates, the body will use the sugar for fuel/energy. If you don’t eat for a period of time, or if your diet is lacking carbohydrates, your body will begin to produce an alternative fuel source from stored body fat. Our evolutionary ancestors used this ability to survive the harshest environments and greatest famines. 

Additionally, our ancestors began using fasting for it’s noticeable health benefits as early as 500 BC. 

  • Early doctors in Greece used fasting to treat disease
  • Hippocrates, traditionally regarded as the father of medicine, documented fasting as the only treatment for epilepsy.
  • “The best of all medicine is rest and fasting” – Benjamin Franklin
  • “A little starvation can really do more for the average sick man than can the best medicines and the best doctors. I do not mean a restricted diet; I mean total abstention from food for one to two days” – Mark Twain
  • Dietary Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus in the Pre-Insulin Era (1914-1922), used fasting to treat type 1 and type 2 diabetes. 
  • 1797:  John Rollo – Notes of a Diabetic case
  • 1854:  Rebecca Oppenheimer – Cookbook for diabetics
  • 1863:  William Banting – Letter on corpulence
  • 1877:  Morgan W – Diabetes Mellitus: It’s History, chemistry, Pathology, Physiology and Treatment 
  • 1884:  Dr Wilhelm Epstein – Fatty Food and Fat Meat diet for Obesity
  • 1895:   Dr L Humphrey – States, “carbohydrates are injurious’ to those with diabetes and must be avoided.”

Low-Carb/Ketogenic Diet Awakening:

In the early 1920s, a doctor named Russell Wilder from The Wilder Clinic was determined to find an alternative to fasting for children with epilepsy. He discovered you can mimic the effects of fasting by avoiding sugar and eating a diet higher in fat. He tested this diet on people with epilepsy and the ketogenic diet became the main epilepsy treatment for many years. 

Wilder’s discovery was the birth of the ketogenic diet.

But with the advancement in pharmaceuticals, new seizure drugs were developed and doctors began prescribing medications instead of dietary changes for the primary treatment for epilepsy. At the same time, the Ketogenic Diet was being used to treat obesity and type 2 diabetes.

1900’s History of Ketogenic Diet/Low-Carb Diet

  • 1900s (early):  Bernard Naunyn encouraged strict carbohydrate-free diet, with energy provided by fat and protein
  • 1915:  Joslin – The American Journal of Medical sciences – Volume 150, J B Lipincott company
  • 1920:  L H Newberg MD & Phil L Marsh – The Use of a High Fat Diet in the Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus 
  • 1920’s:  Blake Donaldson – Strong Medicine – Fatty Meat diet
  • 1920:  Dr Russel Moore Wilder – Minnesota Ketogenic diet, A Diet for Obesity. 
  • 1920’s:  Dr Russel Moore Wilder – The Wilder Clinic – Ketogenic Diet for Epilepsy
  • 1920 – L.H. Newburgh MD and Phil L Marsh MD – The use of a high fat diet in the treatment of diabetes mellitus. 
  • 1923:  William Osler – The Practice and Principles of medicines
  • 1925:  Every woman doctor book advocates low carb for treating type 2 diabetes 
  • 1951:  Raymond Greene – The practice of Endocrinology
  • 1957:  Dr George L Thorpe – Treating Overweight Patients with Meat Fat and Water
  • 1958:  A. Kekwick and G. L. S. Pawan – British Medical Journal, High Fat Diet for Weight Loss
  • 1960:  Air force diet 
  • 1960:  Campbell GD – South African Medical Journal, Diabetes in Asians & Africans in & around Durban
  • 1940s:  Dr. A. W. Pennington, In New York, was improving satiety in executives of Eisenhower. Low carbohydrate diet for obesity which inspired Atkins. 
  • 1951:  Pennington AW – The use of fat in a weight reducing diet. Del Med J.
  • 1960:  Richard Mackarness – Eat and grow slim, Dietary advice for Diabetics

Popularity Grows For The Ketogenic Diet:

In the 1970s, consumers became aware of their expanding waistlines. The Ketogenic Diet was recognized as a solution and it became a popular weight loss strategy. 

The following timeline shows modern day growth and popularity.

  • 1975: T L Cleave – The Saccharine Disease
  • Current:  Ketogenic Diet/Low Carb High Fat Diet – reverse obesity, type 2 diabetes, reduce inflammation and many more benefits.
  • 1972: A cardiologist named Dr. Atkins publishes the book Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution expounding his years of medical research on low-carb dieting for weight loss and heart health. This put the higher fat/low-carb way of eating on the map.
  • 1977: Dr. Phinney, a physician and scientist who spent his life studying nutrition, authored The Last Chance Diet— a book promoting a fat and protein drink diet he developed. However, this drink he created lacked necessary minerals and people became sick, some even dying.
  • 1988: Dr. Phinney creates The Optifast Diet—a nutritional program centered around fat and protein drink products he created, but with minerals in it this time. Oprah endorses it and keto research picked up.
  • 1990: U.S. television network NBC airs a show about the positive outcome of the ketogenic diet on a two-year-old boy suffering from severe seizures. The show instigates a big spike in PubMed publications relating to keto.
  • 1992: An update of Dr. Atkins 1972 book is published. Called Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, it inspires other doctors to publish dieting books based on similar low-carb principles and marks the beginning of the “low-carb craze.”
  • 1996: The story of the boy from NBC’s 1990 TV special is made into a movie starring actress Meryl Streep and sparking a renewed scientific interest in the ketogenic diet.
  • 2000s (early): The Atkins Diet is rediscovered and the low-carb movement gains momentum.
  • 2013: A study published in Science magazine shows the anti-aging and health benefits of a ketogenic diet. This creates a big curiosity towards keto in the paleo and biohacking communities.
  • 2015: Famous podcaster Tim Ferriss interviews Dr. D’Agostino,PhD, a keto research scientist, on “Fasting, Ketosis, and the End of Cancer,” pushing the ketogenic diet to the top of Google diet searches, where it has remained ever since. 

Todays Ketogenic and Low-Carb Diet:

There’s been an explosion in the keto diet over the past five years, both for personal use and medical interventions. I use it to effectively reverse obesity and type 2 diabetes. There are many other health benefits and the list continues to grow. 

Although, originally used as a treatment for seizures, our ancestors knew the health benefits of a ketogenic diet long before disease became prevalent. Today, ketogenic research continues to show the keto diet can benefit health and well-being in many ways. 

We must discover and understand why we gain weight, why we get sick, and what we can do about it. 

YOUR NUTRITION MISSION…should you choose to accept it:  Lets rebel together, challenge the status quo, and feel unstoppable!


Valerie Grosso RDN

The Rebel Dietitian With A Mission

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