Finding treatment for a sick child may be the best motivation for adopting a new diet. It was for Oliver Smith, whose epileptic son Liam’s condition prompted his start on the high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet more than seven years ago.
He had witnessed Liam’s first seizure. Liam was just 10 weeks old and stopped breathing for a few seconds. By the time he was 10 years old, he was having constant seizures despite taking four medications at maximum dosages.
Epilepsy is a central nervous system (neurological) disorder in which brain activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures or periods of unusual behaviour, sensations, and sometimes loss of awareness. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy. While many underlying factors can lead to the disease, including genetics, the cause is still unknown in about half of cases.
“The doctors were starting to talk about surgery, trying to find a part of the brain they could cut off to see if that would help,” Smith says. “That’s when I started my journey into finding something else. I just couldn’t picture someone opening my son’s skull and fiddling inside.”
Oliver Smith works as a kinesiologist and hypnotherapist at Kinesiology Asia in Central, is also a qualified nutritionist, and plays music professionally. | Image source: Dickson Lee/SCMP
Realising the limitations of conventional Western medicine, Smith had studied many alternative approaches. A certified clinical hypnotherapist and kinesiologist and a professional musician, he has a degree in physics and is a practitioner of martial arts, qi gong and reiki. For Liam’s sake, he would add certified nutritionist to his credentials.
The keto diet had been alluded to as a possible treatment when Liam was initially diagnosed years earlier. “As soon as the neurologist mentioned it, he kind of almost discouraged us to try this route,” Smith recalls.
Though it is popular today as a weight-loss diet, Dr Russell Wilder developed the diet at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, in the US state of Minnesota, in 1923 for treating children with epilepsy who didn’t respond to medication. Studies over the years have shown in at least a quarter of cases, children on the diet see a huge reduction in the frequency of their seizures, and could even cut down on the medicine to control them.
” aEssentially, the high-fat, low-carb diet starves the body of glucose found in carbs and sugar, so the liver starts turning to fat stores for energy, breaking them down into fatty acids and ketone bodies. Elevated ketone levels—a state known as ketosis—are believed to help quieten the brain’s neurological actions to manage epilepsy.
Smith began delving into the diet and its potential to boost his son’s quality of life and became a certified nutritionist in the process. “When I looked in Hong Kong for a dietitian who specialised in this, I just couldn’t find anyone,” he said.
From left: Alicia, Oliver, Liam, and Cecile Guitton ” the Smith family in Cheung Chau, Hong Kong. | Image source: Jonathan Wong/SCMP
Before putting his son on the regimented diet ” in which 75 per cent of daily calories are from fat, 20 per cent from protein, and just 5 per cent from carbohydrates ” he would be a guinea pig to test its effects.
He was shocked by how great he felt after only a couple of weeks on the keto diet. “I’d been suffering all my life from hypoglycaemia, that I needed to eat every two hours or I’d start to feel dizzy, that I used to have a little bit of hypertension. Everything just sorted itself out.”
Smith lost about 10kg. “I’ve never looked overweight, but after age 40, you start to develop this nice little belly. All the weight that I’ve lost was basically around the belly area, which is the kind of fat that you don’t want, which is not very healthy.”
After six months, and pleased with the results, he and his wife, Cecile, agreed to try this on Liam. “The results were a little bit disappointing at first,” he recalls. “In most of the literature, you see kids responding very quickly … It took a few months to realise there was something going on.”
Now, Smith wishes they had started Liam on the diet sooner. “He’s been four years completely seizure-free. He’s down to two medications at very low dosage. His brain is working as it’s never worked before.”
The Smith family at home enjoying a keto meal. | Image source: Jonathan Wong/SCMP
“If it wasn’t for keto, my son Liam, wouldn’t be where he is right now … It literally saved his life.”
Smith is not eating more meat than before he adopted this lifestyle, but he does tend to eat more vegetables. “All the carbs, like the rice, the pasta that I used to eat a lot before, I replaced with more greens. This is something that surprises people the most, that when they switch to keto they start eating way more vegetables.”
He is an administrator of The HK Ketogenic Health Group Facebook page, which provides resources and support for people interested in it. And he uses his knowledge and expertise to help clients who may benefit from it.
Before working out a plan to help them realise their goals, he asks that they see their doctor to get a baseline blood test to see if there are any issues they need to address “before they embark on a nutritional journey that is really quite a dramatic change from where they’re coming from”. Otherwise, they might blame the diet for causing an existing condition.
“I’ve yet to find one condition where reducing the carbohydrate intake is not going to be beneficial,” Smith says, suggesting people with Type 2 diabetes can be back to normal within three months, people with sleep issues can resolve them, and women with premenstrual syndrome find it disappears.
A carb-free cake at the family meal. Photo: Jonathan Wong alt=A carb-free cake at the family meal. | Image source: Jonathan Wong
“If you compare keto with other weight-loss diets which are pretty much based on the idea that you eat less than you burn to lose fat, these are not sustainable because you are hungry all the time. The idea of the keto diet is that it’s a lifestyle … because you are really changing your approach.”
“People can pretty much eat something that looks like a so-called normal diet but is completely keto,” Smith says. “My son still goes to birthday parties, and we prepare a cake that’s keto using natural sweeteners, using almond flour instead of wheat. It looks beautiful and it tastes sweet but there’s no glycaemic impact [spike in blood sugar levels] … It’s a pretty sustainable diet.”
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.