The keto diet as we practice it today has been growing in popularity over the last few years. It's on magazine covers, in the news, and all over social media -- it's truly exploded into the mainstream. You're probably here because you're well aware by now that it's an amazingly efficient way to lose weight. You're about to be a little more in the know.
Despite rising to household name status only recently, keto existed long before its modern fame. In order to explore keto's history, we're going to have to visit Ancient Greece, meet the first fitness guru, and check out a Meryl Streep movie from the '90s. So grab an avocado and pull up a chair while we look at some of its key historical points.
Ancient Greece: From Demonology to Ketogenesis
Diseases were quite mysterious to people of the ancient world. In Ancient Greece, the condition we call epilepsy was known then as demonic possession. The Greeks prayed and did elaborate rituals to drive out the evil that inhabited the bodies of the afflicted. Needless to say, all the ooh-ing and aah-ing didn't actually help. People who suffered from persistent seizures were stuck with them for life.
Enter Hippocrates, the Greek who brought medicine out of the dark ages. In his "Epidemics" series, written around 500 B.C., he argues against the idea that illnesses have supernatural origins. Rejecting the idea of angry gods and demons, he persuaded other physicians to investigate natural causes, like diet. For seizures, they started using fasting. In "Epidemics," Hippocrates describes an epileptic man cured of his disease by abstaining from food and drink for long periods of time.
Here's a brief aside: the ketogenic diet closely mimics the effects of fasting. The body produces ketones both while fasting and in ketosis. The history of keto is largely an exploration of the history of medical fasting.
Since the Greeks were avid recorders of just about everything they did, a lot of our knowledge of ancient medicine comes from them. It's believed, however, that other cultures in other places were also using fasting as a way to combat seizures. It's even mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Mark.
McFadden: First Fitness Guru, and Conklin: Keto Scientist
The benefits of ketogenesis were lost for a long time, only to be rediscovered in the modern world thanks to one of American history's lesser-known but very colorful characters, Bernarr McFadden.
Born in 1868, McFadden grew up poor. Orphaned at the age of eleven, he started working hard labor jobs to survive. But McFadden had his fair share of gumption and, apparently, a knack for marketing. He saved up enough money to join a gymnasium and fixated on the positive ways hard work and poverty had impacted his health. Basically, not being able to eat every day combined with lots of open-air exercise had turned him into a strong, good-looking dude. So, in the true spirit of the times, he set out to profit on it.
He managed to achieve fame and wealth with a unique traveling fitness show. McFadden went on tour, showing off his muscles and performing ridiculous feats of strength (such as having his wife jump from a seven-foot platform, landing squarely on his abs). He invented the term "kinistherapist," advertising himself as a "teacher of physical culture," or personal trainer. His self-made publishing empire cranked out books by the thousands, raving that three-day to three-week fasts would make any man or woman live to be 120 years old.
Before McFadden died at the age of 87, his works had already made a lasting impact on his student and biggest fan, Hugh Conklin. Inspired by his brawny idol, Conklin had been recommending fasting as a treatment for almost everything since the early 1900s. In his private osteopathic practice, he found it particularly effective against childhood epilepsy.
Conklin's work was published in a medical journal, and by the 1920s, experiments with fasting and epilepsy were under way around the world. Dr. Conklin reported that his patients had almost no seizures while fasting.
However, the symptoms would return when they started eating normally again. This kicked off a race to find a practical diet that could simulate fasting's beneficial effects. The discovery of keto was right around the corner.
Keto: Rediscovered, Lost, and Discovered Anew
In the 1910s and '20s, a few simultaneous breakthroughs occurred. Around 1911 in Paris, a study showed how a low-calorie diet helped epileptic patients. In 1921, building off that study, American endocrinologist Rollin Woodyatt discovered that the same chemical compounds produced by the liver during fasting were also produced on a low-carb, high fat diet. Eureka! These compounds were called ketones.
Dr. Russel Wilder of the Mayo Clinic was the first to coin the phrase "ketogenic diet." It became the standard seizure treatment only until the 1930s, when it disappeared again from medical science. The rise of the pharmaceutical industry made AEDs (anti-seizure drugs) the shiny, new, profitable solution.
After 60 years of obscurity, keto resurfaced in the '90s on an episode of the American television show Dateline. Director Jim Abrahams' two-year-old son Charlie had uncontrollable seizures that resisted all medication. Desperate for results, Abrahams looked into a forgotten form of treatment he'd read about at John's Hopkins: the ketogenic diet.
Charlie's seizures disappeared immediately after his parents put him on keto. Abrahams was moved to write and direct a movie about keto starring Meryl Streep in 1997. The movie, "First Do No Harm," tells the story of how a young child's epilepsy is cured with keto. This was the beginning of keto's latest rise to greatness.
In the early 2000s, study after study confirmed keto's health benefits -- and not just for epilepsy. It helps treat type II diabetes. keto is shown to improve concentration, help people sleep better, and -- you guessed it -- burn fat and lose weight!
Finally, following a couple important podcasts in the 2010s, keto exploded. An experiment that started in 500 B.C. is now widely known as one of the most effective weight loss diets ever. With the huge number of support groups, recipes, blogs, and videos available, Keto is making an impact on millions, and it doesn't look like it's fading away again any time soon. With keto, we might not all become McFaddens, but it's going to improve our lives in wonderful ways.
Ferris podcast (2015): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_b8pbyFdGY
Rogan podcast (2017): https://www.jrepodcast.com/episode/joe-rogan-experience-994-dom-dagostino/