In an age when obesity rates have reached epidemic proportions, a diet containing an extreme amount of fat may sound absurd. But in reality, a high-fat, low-carbohydrate food plan—or ketogenic diet—has been successfully used to rid or markedly reduce seizures in children with drug-resistant epilepsy. By starving the body of carbs and sugars it tricks the body into using fat stores instead of glucose for energy. And that same concept may soon lead to an effective treatment for another serious condition.
In a recent lab study on mice, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York discovered that a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet could reverse a main complication of diabetes: kidney failure. The study included two groups of mice that were genetically predisposed to having Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. The research team fed half the mice a standard, high-carbohydrate diet and the other half a ketogenic diet consisting of 87 percent fat, 55 percent carbohydrates, and 8 percent protein. After eight weeks, kidney failure was reversed in the ketogenic-fed mice, according to the study published in the journal PLoS ONE.
Doctors speculated the diet might work for diabetics by blocking the harmful effects of excess glucose, a sugar made as the body metabolises food but that can cause serious problems in diabetics who lack enough insulin to regulate it. Over time, having too much glucose in the blood damages the retinas of the eyes, nerves, blood vessels and kidneys. Damage to the kidneys from diabetes, known as diabetic nephropathy, is a leading cause of kidney failure. Once kidneys fail, dialysis or replacement via transplant is necessary.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 24 million Americans suffer from diabetes, and about 180,000 people are living with kidney failure linked to their disease. The incidence of diabetes is rapidly increasing. Nearly 1 million new cases occur each year, and diabetes is the direct or indirect cause of at least 200,000 deaths each year.
Our study is the first to show that a dietary intervention alone is enough to reverse this serious complication of diabetes,” said lead author Charles Mobbs at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “This finding has significant implications for the tens of thousands of Americans diagnosed with diabetic kidney failure, and possibly other complications, each year.” Previous research has shown that lowering blood sugar through diet can prevent kidney failure but not reverse it in patients with diabetes.
“Dr Mobbs’ novel observation could lead to new molecular insights in diabetic kidney disease,” said Helen Nickerson from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which provided partial funding for the study.
Dr. Mobbs admits that, although the results of the study are promising, the diet “is probably too extreme for chronic use in adult patients” but said the findings should “help us identify a drug target and subsequent pharmacological interventions that mimic the effect of the diet.” His team is also planning more studies on how the ketogenic diet impacts other neurological diseases such as retinopathy, which causes loss of sight.
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