How is the Medical Ketogenic Diet for Epilepsy Different from the Keto Diet for Weight Loss?

The classical medical ketogenic diet for the management of intractable epilepsy was created in the 1920s at the Mayo Clinic. It became popularized in the 1990s thanks to the launch of the Charlie Foundation and the release of the movie First Do No Harm. With the recent popularity of the keto diet for weight loss purposes, many people may wonder how it is different from the medical ketogenic diet that is used to manage intractable epilepsy. While both have the same basic premise: low carbohydrates and high fat, there are many distinctions. In today’s post, we’ll describe the key ways that the medical ketogenic diet for the management of epilepsy is different from the mainstream keto diet that is used for weight loss.  

Medical Supervision

One major difference between the medical ketogenic diet and the keto diet for weight loss is that the medical ketogenic diet must be designed and monitored by a medical team, usually a neurologist and a ketogenic dietitian (a registered dietitian who is trained to manage medical ketogenic diets for epilepsy). Not only is the medical ketogenic diet typically initiated in the hospital, it is also monitored by the medical team on a regular basis to look out for side effects, to ensure nutritional needs are being met, and to assess the diet’s effect on seizure control. 

Diet Design

One of the key differences between the medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy and the keto diet for weight loss is the way the diets are designed. The classical medical ketogenic diet is designed according to the ketogenic ratio, that is, the ratio of the amount of fat (measured in grams) to the amount of combined carbohydrates and protein (also measured in grams). The exact amount of carbs, fat, and protein allowed on a classical medical ketogenic diet depends on:

  • The specific ketogenic ratio selected by the medical team
  • The patient’s specific daily calorie requirement
  • The amount of protein required to sustain the patient’s specific goal body mass

Therefore, no two patients on a medical ketogenic diet will have the exact same daily carb, protein, and fat requirements. In comparison, the keto diet for weight loss typically limits carbohydrates to a given amount or aims for a certain percentage of calories coming from carbs, protein, and fats. If you were to compare the two diets according to the number of daily carbs and protein allowed, the medical ketogenic diet will typically be much lower in carbs and protein, and much higher in fat. Note that there are less strict variations of the classical medical ketogenic diet, such as the modified Atkins diet, but even these versions of medical ketogenic diets will be much lower in carbs and higher in fat compared to a keto diet for weight loss.

Protein Restriction

Another difference between the two diets is that the classical medical ketogenic diet restricts protein in addition to carbohydrates. As described above, the amount of protein allowed in the medical ketogenic diet depends on the patient’s goal body mass. In other words, they are allowed just enough protein to sustain their body’s muscle mass but no extra. A keto diet for weight loss typically focuses more on limiting carbohydrates, with less restriction to protein intake.

Diet Initiation

Unlike the keto diet for weight loss, the medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy is generally initiated in the hospital under close medical supervision. Because of the very strict limitation of carbohydrates and protein, the level of ketosis reached on the medical ketogenic diet is much higher compared to a keto diet for weight loss. Therefore, it is essential that a medical ketogenic diet is initiated under medical supervision.

  • To ensure that the patient tolerates the selected ketogenic ratio
  • To monitor for and treat potential side effects like low blood glucose or vomiting
  • To allow the medical team to make adjustments to the diet as needed

This hospital time is also used to train the patient or their caregiver how to manage the diet once they go home.

Precision of Food Measurement

Another difference between the two diets is the precision with how foods must be measured. On the classical medical ketogenic diet, all foods and drinks must be measured to the tenth of a gram using a gram scale. For example, a meal may call for 29.2 grams of chicken breast, 50.5 grams of mayonnaise, etc. Every single bite of the meal must be consumed to ensure that the ketogenic ratio of the meal is accurate. With a keto diet for weight loss, foods can typically be measured with household measurements like cups, ounces, and tablespoons, and there is less concern about finishing the entire meal.

Sticking to the Diet

For patients following a medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy management, breaking the diet, even just a bite, can result in breakthrough seizures. Therefore, having a “cheat meal” or taking a week off for the holidays is simply not an option. Individuals following a keto diet for weight loss may lose weight-loss progress if they fall off the diet for a while, but the consequences are not so serious.

Accounting for Medications & Non-Food Products

With the medical ketogenic diet, the carbohydrate allowance is so specific that trace amounts of carbohydrates from medications need to be accounted for. Typically, when a patient starts the medical ketogenic diet, they are switched to variations of their anti-seizure medications with lower carb amounts (for example, switching from liquid form to tablet form). If there are still carbohydrates coming from medications, the carbohydrate allowance from foods will have to be adjusted to account for them. Oftentimes, the medical ketogenic diet team will recommend specific brands of self-care products that are lower or without carbohydrates (yes, the body can absorb trace amounts of carbs through the skin!). This may be especially important for items that go in the mouth (like toothpaste) or that are applied to large areas of the skin (like moisturizer or sunscreen). Individuals following a keto diet for weight loss generally don’t have to be this precise or careful about trace carbohydrates.

Length of Time

People who follow a keto diet for weight loss may follow the diet for a certain amount of time to lose weight or they may follow a keto lifestyle permanently as a method to maintain weight. On the other hand, patients on a medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy management will usually follow the diet for a specific period of time. In most cases, if a patient’s seizures are controlled on the medical ketogenic diet for 2 years, the medical team will recommend weaning off of the diet with the hope that they can come off the diet and maintain seizure control. However, with certain medical conditions, like Glut-1 Deficiency Syndrome, the medical ketogenic diet must be maintained for longer periods of time or even for life.

Hopefully this post gives you a better idea of what makes the medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy different from the more widespread keto diet used for weight loss purposes. For more information on the medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy, visit www.ketogenicdietforepilepsy.com.

– Mallory

This blog post is brought to you by Nutricia North America.

The medical ketogenic diet should be used under medical supervision.

To learn more about the medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy, visit www.ketogenicdietforepilepsy.com.

Sugar Alcohols: Are They Compatible with the Medical Ketogenic Diet?

If you are following or considering a medical ketogenic diet or modified Atkins diet (MAD) for the management of intractable epilepsy, you may have heard talk about sugar alcohols and whether they are compatible with the diet. In today’s blog post, ketogenic dietitian Stacey Bessone will tell us more about sugar alcohols and what role they play with the medical ketogenic diets.


Sugar alcohols are a specific type of carbohydrate called “polyols”. Sugar alcohols are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables and often added to foods as a reduced-calorie alternative to sugar. Some common sugar alcohols you may see in food ingredient lists include:

  • Malitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Isomalt
  • Xylitol
  • Erythritol

It’s important to be aware that some sugar alcohols may cause some people to experience bloating, gas and diarrhea, even when consumed in small amounts.

Sugar Alcohols & Glycemic Index

Interestingly, most sugar alcohols are incompletely absorbed in the small intestine, so they do not raise blood sugar the same way as sucrose (table sugar). However, since they are partially absorbed, they may affect blood glucose levels to some degree.   This can be observed by looking at the glycemic indexes of sugar alcohols compared to sugar. Glycemic index is a measure of the increase in blood glucose when a food is digested and absorbed. It is based on a numeric scale from zero to 100, where the glycemic index of glucose (a type of sugar you get from foods and the form that your body uses for energy) is 100. The glycemic index of sucrose (table sugar) is around 65, whereas the glycemic indexes of the main sugar alcohols are between 0 and 45. Therefore, sugar alcohols may raise your blood glucose, although not as much as sugars like sucrose and glucose.

[i],[ii]

One specific type of sugar alcohol, Erythritol, is metabolized differently than other sugar alcohols. Erythritol is fully absorbed in the small intestine and excreted in the urine unchanged, so it does not affect blood glucose levels like other sugar alcohols. As you can see in the chart above, the glycemic index of erythritol is zero.

Calories in Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols provide fewer calories per gram compared to regular carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols are therefore often used as a reduced-calorie alternative to sugar.

Sugar Alcohols, Erythritol, and the Ketogenic Diet

So, are sugar alcohols allowed on the medical ketogenic diet and modified Atkins diet (MAD)?  Technically, most sugar alcohols should be counted as regular carbohydrates and kept to a minimum on the medical ketogenic and modified Atkins diets (MAD). Although they may affect blood glucose differently in different people, most sugar alcohols have the potential of raising blood sugar. The exception to this rule is erythritol, since it is metabolized differently and does not affect blood glucose.  I generally tell my medical ketogenic diet and modified Atkins diet (MAD) patients that when reading a food label for carbohydrate content, erythritol is the only sugar alcohol that can be deducted from total carbohydrate content. I also tell my patients that sugar alcohol can only be deducted from the total carbohydrate amount if erythritol is the only sugar alcohol used in a product. When other sugar alcohols are used in addition to erythritol, the sugar alcohol content cannot be deducted, so I tell my patients to read the food label’s ingredient list carefully.

Speak to Your Healthcare Provider

Each dietitian has his/her own protocols, so while I allow my medical keto patients to deduct erythritol but no other sugar alcohols from total carbohydrate content, your provider may have different recommendations. As always, it’s important to speak to your dietitian about which foods and ingredients are allowed for your unique diet.

– Stacey

For more information on the medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy, visit http://ketogenicdietforepilepsy.com/.

I was paid by Nutricia for my time to write this blog post, however, my opinions are my own.

The medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy should be used under medical supervision.

[i] Regnat K, Mach RL, and Mach-Aigner AR. Erythritol as sweetener—where from and where to? Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2018; 102(2): 587–595.

[ii] Livesey G. Nutr Res Rev. Health potential of polyols as sugar replacers, with emphasis on low glycaemic properties.2003 Dec;16(2):163-91.

The Benefits of Using KetoCal® 4:1 Once Per Day

KetoCal 4-1 productsThe ketogenic diet can help manage seizures in patients with refractory epilepsy. In fact, research shows that just over half of children on the ketogenic diet will have 50% or more improvement in seizures, about 1/3 of children will have over 90% improvement in seizures and about 10-15% will become seizure-free. While it can be helpful with seizure management, being on the ketogenic diet can be challenging at times. In today’s blog post, I will tell you a little about how KetoCal can be a helpful addition to the ketogenic diet.

KetoCal Everyday Convenience

If you have a child on the ketogenic diet, I don’t have to tell you that it can be challenging to plan for keto meals or snacks while running errands, traveling, or going to after-school activities. Using KetoCal once per day can help provide everyday convenience when you are on-the-go. KetoCal® LQ is ready-to-drink and provides a simple and nutritious solution for busy schedules. It also tastes great! (Request a sample to taste it for yourself!)

KetoCal for Nutritional Reassurance

As a busy mom and dietitian, I know a little about the struggle to find meals and snacks that are easy AND nutritious. KetoCal was designed to be both! Using KetoCal® 4:1 once per day is not only convenient, but can also help fill nutrient gaps in the ketogenic diet. Unlike heavy cream (a popular milk substitute with the ketogenic diet)*, one serving of KetoCal 4:1 (356 calories) provides:

  • An excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients that are important for bone health
  • Fiber to promote gut health
  • DHA, an Omega-3 fatty acid that plays a role in brain and eye health
  • 4 times LESS saturated fat when compared to heavy cream!

There are multiple ways to incorporate KetoCal 4:1 into your daily routine. You can drink it once per day or use it in everyday recipes. KetoCal 4:1 is available as a powder (great for baking!) or as a ready-to-drink liquid (convenient while on-the-go). Work with your dietitian or visit www.myketoplanner.com to find tasty recipes using KetoCal 4:1.

Ellen Avery, MS, RD
Medical Advisor, Ketogenics
Nutricia North America

KetoCal is a medical food for the dietary management of intractable epilepsy and is intended for use under medical supervision. Talk with your healthcare provider about whether KetoCal is right for you. 

*Comparing an equal amount of calories from heavy cream.