The Keto Paradox: Fad Diet *and* Life-Saving Medical Treatment

What do some epilepsy patients have in common with tech bros, bodybuilders, and Joe Rogan? The high-fat, carb-shunning diet known as keto, whose history dates back much further than its 2010s rise to fame. In this episode, Gastropod traces how a medical treatment pioneered more than 2,500 years ago was refined in the 1920s to treat seizures. We trace its wild ride in and out of fashion, with cameos from Robert Atkins, the 80s exercise craze, and Meryl Streep. And, of course, we've got the myth-busting science on what ketosis and ketones really are, the dangers of eating this way to lose weight, and the reason this diet can be life-saving—for people with a very specific medical condition. Bust out the butter (but please don't put it in coffee) and join us down the keto rabbit hole.

Episode Notes

Adrienne Bitar

Adrienne Bitar is a lecturer at Cornell University, specializing in the history and culture of American food and health. She is the author of Diet and the Disease of Civilization, the first full-length study of diet books.

Tanya McDonald

Johns Hopkins neurologist Tanya McDonald specializes in the treatment of epilepsy, including the use of the ketogenic diet for her patients.

Bernarr McFadden is credited as one of the early popularizers of the low-carb, high-fat diets that preceded Atkins and keto; left, a film poster from 1915 about his effort to "build up the health of a nation;" right, McFadden in 1923, at age 55.

Michael Easter

Michael Easter writes about health and wellness and is a lecturer at the University of Nevada. He covered the ketogenic diet for Men's Health in his article "Inside the Rise of Keto: How an Extreme Diet Went Mainstream."

Shivam Joshi

Shivam Joshi is a nephrologist and an assistant professor at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine.

Two very different media that helped popularize keto: Robert Atkins and his low-carb, high-fat diets, which encouraged users to go into ketosis; and the Meryl Streep TV movie "First Do No Harm," which told the true story of how the keto diet helped treat epilepsy in a boy named Charlie Abrahams, and helped re-popularize the diet for seizure control.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund

This episode of Gastropod was supported in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics

This episode of Gastropod was supported by a generous grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics. Check out the other books, movies, shows, podcasts, and more that they support here.


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