The History Of Keto Diet

history of keto diet

The keto diet is a science-based low-carb, moderate protein, high-fat diet that dates back to the 20th/early 20th century. Many people choose the keto diet to lose weight. However, ketones were first discovered for seizure control and have many other diet benefits such as improved neurological function, improved mental clarity, and sustained energy throughout the day. What is the history of the keto diet and why has its popularity skyrocketed among dieters and others? We review the history, development and relevance of the keto diet. 

A History of Epilepsy Research

Although the term “ketogenic” was not used until the 20th century, there is historical precedent for fasting for health. Ancient Greek physicians advocated dietary restrictions to treat diseases such as epilepsy and other health problems, and fasting was considered an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. In fact, fasting was the only treatment for epilepsy recorded by Hippocrates, and it was standard practice in most parts of the world for more than 2,000 years.

While most people today begin a keto diet to lose weight or otherwise improve their health, this eating strategy has its origins in the treatment of epilepsy. The research story began with the first modern study of fasting and its effects on epilepsy, conducted in France around 1911. That study found that epileptics who consumed a low-calorie diet and fasted had fewer seizures and fewer adverse health effects.

Around the same time, an American osteopathic physician named Hugh Conklin began recommending fasting to his epileptic patients to help them control their seizures. He used a method that caused his epileptic patients to fast for 18-25 days at a time, and he boasted a success rate of 50% for adults and up to 90% for children.

The Birth of Keto: A Less Restrictive Treatment for Epilepsy

In the early 1920s, a doctor at the Wilder Clinic named Russell Wilder recognized the dangers of fasting in children and explored different diets to see if something else could cause a similar response to fasting. He found that you can mimic the effects of fasting by avoiding sugar and eating a high-fat, low-carb diet. He tested this diet on children with epilepsy (with very positive results), and his diet became the primary treatment for pediatric epilepsy for many years. Wilder’s discovery was the birth of the keto diet.

In the 1930s, new anticonvulsant seizure drugs were developed. Patients and doctors found it easier to take the drugs than to change their diet, so these new drugs became the mainstay of treatment for epilepsy.

The Keto Diet’s Second Coming

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when consumers expressed interest in weight loss and dieting, that the keto diet was reborn. But its comeback wasn’t immediate. The timeline below demonstrates the slow but steady growth of keto’s popularity and use.

  • 1972: A cardiologist named Dr. Atkins has published a book, “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution,” describing his years of medical research on low-carb diets for weight loss and heart health. This put a high-fat/low-carb diet on the map.
  • 1988: Dr. Phinney creates The Optifast Diet—a nutritional program centered around fat and protein drink products he created, with minerals in it. Oprah endorses it and keto research picked up.
  • 1990: The U.S. television network NBC aired a program about the positive effects of the keto diet on a two-year-old boy with severe epilepsy. The program prompted a huge increase in publications on ketosis on PubMed.
  • 1996: The story of the boy from NBC’s 1990 television special was made into a movie starring actress Meryl Streep and sparked a new scientific interest in the keto diet.
  • 2013: A study published in the journal Science shows the anti-aging and health benefits of a keto diet. This has generated a lot of curiosity in the paleo and biohacking communities about the keto diet.
  • 2015: Noted broadcaster Tim Ferriss interviewed keto research scientist Dr. D’Agostino on “Fasting, Ketosis and the End of Cancer,” pushing the keto diet to the top of Google’s diet search, where it has remained ever since. 

The Keto Diet Today

The keto low-carb diet has exploded in the last few years, both in personal use and in scientific inquiry. The trend of Google search terms has been steadily climbing for six years and continues to do so.

Why is keto more than just a fad diet? Because the health benefits are growing far beyond its original intent of being seizure-free and anti-epileptic. There are three main reasons people are going on keto: 

Weight loss:

One of the main reasons many people switch to keto is the weight loss benefits. In the absence of starchy carbohydrates that are converted to blood sugar (glucose), your body burns fat for fuel (both dietary fat and body fat). Fat acts as your primary source of energy, keeping you stable and full throughout the day with fewer food cravings. As a result, it has become a popular diet for fighting everything from augmentation to obesity. It will also burn excess fat and help you lose weight fast if you meal plan and eat within the recommended daily macronutrient (also known as macronutrients or daily calorie intake broken down into fat, protein and carbohydrate ratios).

Brain Health:

The brain loves ketone bodies. Outside of epilepsy, the keto diet supports other neurological diseases and conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Ketone bodies also help with concentration, memory, attention, cognition and reducing brain fog. 


Researchers are studying ketones as an adjunctive dietary treatment for cancer. So far, the results have been promising. In recent studies, ketones have significantly increased survival time and slowed tumor growth. The tumor types were pancreatic, prostate, stomach, colon, brain, neuroblastoma and lung cancer.

The Final Word

Although originally developed as a treatment for seizures and exploratory neurology, our predecessors knew the health benefits of the keto diet. Today, keto research is growing, and we continue to discover new, positive side effects and ways in which the keto diet can be beneficial to health and well-being.

Whatever your reasons for being interested in the classic keto diet, be sure to consult your doctor or dietitian or nutritionist before starting a new eating regimen.

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