Karlie Earhart: ‘Magic Diet’ helps tackle seizures

Published On 07/31/2012

Six-year-old Karlie Earhart is a picky eater. She won’t eat sweets or carbohydrate-rich foods, and she incorporates cream or butter into every meal. She’s picky about what she eats, not because she has sensitive taste buds, but because she wants her seizures to stop.

Karlie’s on the “magic diet.”

The meal plan Karlie has fondly nicknamed is known clinically as the ketogenic diet – a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates. While variations of this diet have been used to treat seizures since at least biblical times, the ketogenic diet has only been around for the last 100 years. With the proper ratio of fats to carbohydrates, the diet produces ketones, which act on the brain’s metabolism, changing its energy state and reducing seizure activity.

Karlie, who lives in Enid, Okla., was 3 years old when she had her first seizure.

“She would just fall out of her chair at the dinner table,” said her mother, Amy Earhart. These “drop seizures” were just one of four types of seizures Karlie started to have regularly.

After receiving Karlie’s epilepsy diagnosis, the Earharts started traveling from Oklahoma to Memphis, Tenn., to see Pediatric Neurologist James Wheless, MD, an expert in pediatric epilepsy at Le Bonheur. Aggressive drug therapy was prescribed to manage Karlie’s seizures.

Karlie was taking 19 pills a day to calm her seizures, but they were making her drocwsy and lethargic.

That’s when the Earharts and Wheless decided to explore other options. Wheless suggested the family talk with a clinical dietitian at Le Bonheur about trying the ketogenic diet.

The ketogenic diet would be hard work. Every morsel of food Karlie ate would have to be weighed on a scale to make sure it had the proper ratio of fats to carbohydrates. As most ketogenic diet patients do, the Earharts would have to add fats in the form of cream, butter or oil to Karlie’s meals. Sweets and carbohydrate-rich foods would have to be eliminated from her diet.

“We thought it’d be hard to get a 6-year-old to give up foods like cupcakes and pizza,” said Amy. The Earharts knew the hard work would be worth it if Karlie’s seizures reduced.

According to The Charlie Foundation, an organization established to raise awareness about the ketogenic diet treatment, 50-75 percent of children with unmanageable seizures of all types are helped by the diet.

“The outcome of the diet will be different from patient to patient, and its success will depend on the family’s goals. Some families may aim for complete seizure freedom, while others may feel the diet is worth continuing if it reduces the number of medicines their child will take,” said Rebecca Jennings, MS, RD, CSP, LDN, a Le Bonheur clinical dietician who specializes in the ketogenic diet.

It has been more than one year since Karlie first started the ketogenic diet. She has her favorite meals, such as a hot dog with a side of green beans, which are mixed with cream and butter, or a “keto pancake” made especially for her. As a treat, she often makes “magic root beer” – diet root beer mixed with cream.

“Occasionally she’ll ask for something she knows she can’t have,” says Amy. “We’ll tell her ‘OK, but you know you might have a seizure.’ She always agrees it’s best not to eat it then.”

Karlie was diagnosed as seizure free and doesn’t have to take any medication. The diet has also helped with Karlie’s left-sided weakness, which was caused by the seizures. Her strength and coordination improve daily. She’s also improving in school and has a better ability to learn, says her mom. Before the diet, Karlie had trouble coloring and tracing her name.