High-fat diet is awful, but it may reverse diabetes-related kidney damage

A high-fat "ketogenic" diet may reverse the kidney damage caused by diabetes, a study published online Wednesday by the journal PLoS One reports.

Past research has shown that lowering blood sugar through diet can prevent kidney failure but not reverse it in patients with diabetes.  Lead author Charles Mobbs, a neuroscientist at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, said that this study -- in which mice were fed a high-fat diet of 5% carbohydrate, 8% protein and a whopping 87% fat -- was the first to show that dietary intervention alone is enough to reverse kidney failure caused by diabetes.  

"This finding has significant implications for the tens of thousands of Americans diagnosed with diabetic kidney failure, and possibly other complications, each year," he said.

That's hopeful news, but there's a serious problem: Following a ketogenic diet is brutal.  A November 2010 article in the New York Times Magazine detailed one family's experience putting their young son on the diet to treat his epilepsy.  The boy isn't allowed to eat such staples of childhood as cookies or macaroni and cheese.  His mother has to weigh every morsel that passes his lips.  At the time the article was published, he had been on the diet for almost two years. 

"We figure that in an average week, Sam consumes a quart and a third of heavy cream, nearly a stick and a half of butter, 13 teaspoons of coconut oil, 20 slices of bacon and 9 eggs," wrote the boy's father, journalist Fred Vogelstein, who noted that the ketogenic diet is "only for the desperate."

(Full disclosure: Vogelstein is a former colleague of mine, and his wife is my distant cousin.)

Mobbs and his coauthors admit that the ketogenic diet "is probably too extreme for chronic use in adult patients."  But they suggest as well that "it is plausible that only transient exposure to the diet will ... in effect "reset" the pathological process." Or, they write, "it is possible that a pharmacological intervention that mimcs these effects might be sufficient to reverse pathology."   

Let's hope.  Nice as it sounds (in theory) to chow down daily on butter and cream, it's not something most of us would want to do for any extended period of time. 

Related:

Recently in Booster Shots, Los Angeles Times reporter Thomas H. Maugh II reports that Type 2 diabetes, like Type 1, may be an autoimmune disease

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