Ask the Keto Dietitian Series – the Modified Atkins® Diet (MAD)

Staey Bessone

A Q&A with Ketogenic Dietitian Stacey Bessone, RDN, LDN

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your work as a ketogenic dietitian?

I am originally from Tampa, Florida and came back after finishing my education in Miami at Florida International University. I have always worked in pediatrics for my almost 24 years as a registered dietitian.  I worked in the same children’s hospital I work in now right out of school but left and came back in 2011 when I took a position to exclusively practice with the medical ketogenic diet. We developed our clinic and see patients from all over the state. We also do clinical research so we can study different aspects of the diet. About half of my patients are on the classical medical ketogenic diet and the other half are on the modified Atkins® diet (MAD). I enjoy teaching the modified Atkins® diet as it is outpatient and usually with adolescents.  I enjoy my job immensely and would never choose to do anything other than the medical ketogenic diet.  It is so rewarding and I have the best patients and families.

How long have you been a ketogenic dietitian?

I have practiced the medical ketogenic diet exclusively for the last nine years.

How many patients do you have on the medical ketogenic diet?

We usually have between 60 and 80 patients on one of the medical ketogenic diets at a time.  Often we are teaching new patients while other patients may be weaning the diet.

What is the modified Atkins® diet (MAD) for intractable epilepsy?

The modified Atkins® diet for epilepsy is a carbohydrate-controlled diet in which a patient counts carbs (minus fiber) and is encouraged to eat more fat to promote ketosis.  It is started as an outpatient (meaning the patient doesn’t need to stay in the hospital) and is simpler to begin than the classic medical ketogenic diet.

How is the MAD different from the classical medical ketogenic diet for epilepsy?

The MAD diet is different in that food is measured in household measurements like tablespoons and cups or by servings (versus using a gram scale for the classical medical ketogenic diet). Instead of focusing on the ketogenic ratio (as with the classical medical ketogenic diet), the focus is on counting carbohydrates throughout the day. Fat is encouraged to be added at every meal and snack.  There is no restriction on protein intake or foods with no carbohydrate. Patients learn to read food labels and can eat out at restaurants. It is a great option for adolescents and families that are on-the-go.

What types of patients are good candidates for the MAD?

Your healthcare professional will work with you to select the most appropriate diet option for your needs. In general, the modified Atkins® diet can be a suitable option for older children, teens, and adults who may find a restrictive diet more challenging.  Also, MAD is a good option for patients that need diet intervention immediately and may not be able to wait for a hospital admission to do the classical medical ketogenic diet. 

While not appropriate for all situations, the MAD can have a similar effect on seizure control as the classical ketogenic diet for some individuals. Most of the research shows that nearly 50% of patients on MAD have about a 50% or more reduction in seizures.

About what percentage of your keto patients are on the MAD?

About half of my patients are on the MAD.

How did the MAD come about? When was it started? Where did the idea come from?

In 2003, Dr. Eric Kossoff, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, developed the novel form of the medical ketogenic diet after a patient on a classical medical ketogenic diet came for a follow up visit and had not been weighing his food and had been following the diet “loosely”.  Surprisingly, the child was still in ketosis and doing very well.  Following that patient, there was a young girl who was started on the Atkins® diet in advance of starting the classical diet and achieved ketosis with seizures stopping after three days. These patients had good seizure control so Dr. Kossoff investigated the less strict “modified Atkins® diet” with a formal study. He found that it was a viable option to manage epilepsy with similar results to the classical medical ketogenic diet.  I am happy to be part of the research team at Johns Hopkins with Dr. Kossoff (and dietitian Zahava Turner, RD, CSP, LD) for the past several years through my hospital’s partnership with Johns Hopkins Baltimore.

What are the biggest challenges for your patients following the MAD?

The biggest challenge for patients on MAD (or any other medical ketogenic diet) is sticking to the carb count and not eating any foods that are not allowed.  It can also be challenging for some patients to get enough fat. For some patients, a slip-up can lead to breakthrough seizures since the diet is helping to manage the seizures. 

Is there any research on using KetoCal® with the MAD?

Yes. There was a study in 2011 in children that found using KetoCal with the MAD increased both fat intake and the ketogenic ratio (1.8:1) in comparison with MAD alone (1.01:1). A follow-up study in adults in 2018 showed that starting the MAD diet using KetoCal during the first month in a randomized protocol had better long term compliance and higher fat intake compared to those who did not use the formula.

– Stacey

Thank you, Stacey, for your insights about the modified Atkins® diet for epilepsy!

Hear from patients who have tried the modified Atkins® diet:

Looking for a hospital or program that offers the medical ketogenic diet or modified Atkins® diet? Click here to find one near you.

Learn more about the medical ketogenic diet or modified Atkins® diet for epilepsy here.

Atkins® is a trademark of Atkins® Nutritionals, Inc and not affiliated or endorsed by Nutricia North America.

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

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 to determine if KetoCal is right for you.

ketogenic-diet-for-epilepsy

Tomas’ Epilepsy & Medical Ketogenic Diet Journey

The Ketolicious Kid, Epilepsy Warrior (aka: Tomas, the baseball player)

ketogenic-diet-for-epilepsy

Tomas is 4 ½ years old. He loves everything baseball, outdoors and his family. He says he’s going to be a baseball player when he grows up and that we’re all going to see him on TV one day. He is my 3rd child, the sweetest of all my kids, the baby of the family and the one that was supposed to be on auto-pilot. Tomas was the best baby. He got dragged around everywhere that his older siblings had to go: school events, soccer practices, gymnastics competitions, etc. He was a typical baby and toddler, and everything was perfect, or so it seemed. I’m not sure when, but I started feeling that there was something off about him, something different than my other kids. I didn’t know how to describe it and people told me I was crazy. So, I tried to shake the feeling, and convinced myself everything was ok. Until …. April of 2018.

Epilepsy Diagnosis

We were at my parents’ house celebrating my sister’s engagement. Her fiancé was about to give a toast when, THUD, Tomas collapsed. He was having a seizure, a BIG one. It lasted about 3 ½ minutes but it felt like an eternity. What came after was worse than the seizure itself. He was lethargic and confused, talking but not making sense and then fell into a deep sleep. I watched him all night. The next day he woke up as if nothing had happened – talking, playing, asking for breakfast. I was so relieved, but it was short lived. As I set his breakfast down, he had another seizure. I rushed him to the hospital where he was admitted. There he underwent a series of tests (VEEGs, MRIs, blood work), and we were acquainted with all the -ologist and -icsts the hospital had to offer. We were told that he had epilepsy. The VEEG showed he was having 3 types of seizures (I didn’t even know there were 3 different types of seizures). It was happening all the time and we didn’t even notice. They threw out a few terms for possible diagnoses, said further testing was necessary, put him on anti-epileptic medications and sent us home with instructions to follow up in a week or two.

Intractable Epilepsy

ketogenic-diet-for-epilepsy

The next four months were a blur of increasing seizures, neurologist appointments, VEEGs, and changing and adjusting medications with little to no improvement in seizure control. All the testing came back negative and there was no explanation for his seizures other than “intractable” or “refractory” epilepsy (meaning not responding to medications). We were losing our little boy; he was in a fog of medications and seizures. This was when doctors suggested the medical ketogenic diet as a way to help manage his seizures. They told us that it would involve an initial hospitalization of 1 week and then a strict diet, in which I would have to measure food to the tenth of a gram (0.01 g) for the foreseeable future. I was skeptical. I felt there was NO way that I’d be able to feed my child in this way, especially working full-time and with the crazy hectic life we lived. But I was also desperate and willing to try anything.

The Medical Ketogenic Diet

We started the ketogenic diet in the hospital on August 20th. We had a rough start; Tomas did not tolerate the diet well at first. Thankfully we were working with an amazing team of neurologist and dietitians through the hospital’s Keto Clinic that knew just what to do. Instead of starting at our goal ketogenic ratio, we started the diet gradually. We began with the Modified Atkins Diet and worked our way up to the goal ketogenic ratio slowly, allowing Tomas’ body time to adapt. It took several months, from August to December, to work up to where he needed to be. Those months were difficult. Every few weeks we were changing ratios and adapting meals, tracking his weight and monitoring seizures. I wanted to quit on many occasions, but what kept me going was the small changes I started to notice in Tomas. Although he was still having seizures, the fog seemed to be lifting. I’d get glimpses of who Tomas used to be. This was the trend: small improvements and fewer daily seizures, until January 27th when my husband and I realized that we hadn’t recorded a seizure since December 22nd!!! Fast forward to February 14th – Tomas had his first “normal” 24-hour VEEG since his epilepsy diagnosis.

Tomas Today

Tomas is currently on a 4:1 ratio ketogenic diet and has been seizure-free for 3 months. I am so amazed with how the ketogenic diet has changed our lives. I meal prep weekly for the family and plan out Tomas’ daily meals in advance. I own multiple gram scales and more silicon molds and spatulas than I can count, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve learned to cook/make things I never thought I could, such as keto bagels, pizza, and even blueberry muffins (thanks to KetoCal®). We are lucky to have resources out there like KetoCal that make a restrictive diet feel not so restrictive and make it easier to be a mom to a Keto Kid. We juggle soccer, baseball and gymnastics, eat out, and travel. I didn’t think we would be able to do these things with such a restrictive diet, but I have found that it just takes a little prep work and creativity. Yes, there are still hard days with managing the diet, but the benefits outweigh the challenges. I never thought that our quality-of-life would improve the way that it has. I’ve met amazing people on similar journeys to ours and had opportunities to help others (like writing this blog post).

Advice for Others Struggling with Intractable Epilepsy

My advice for anyone out there suffering from seizures is to give the ketogenic diet a chance. Ask your medical team if its right for you and your family. Be patient and take it one gram at a time, one meal at a time, and one day at a time. Find support and don’t go at it alone because you are NOT alone. There is a huge keto family out there eager and willing to provide advice and support, you just must know where to look. And if you’re reading this now, you are already on the right path. Who knows in what ways the ketogenic diet might improve your life. Good Luck!
Below are some links to some helpful sites and groups:

– Lourdes

I was paid by Nutricia for my time to write this blog post, however, my opinions are my own.
KetoCal is a medical food and is intended for use under medical supervision.

To learn more about the medical ketogenic diet for the management of intractable 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.