The History of Low-Carb Keto Diets

The Low-Carb Keto Diet is not only incredibly popular, it has been shown to heal illnesses ranging from epilepsy1 to cancer.2 Although this diet seems to have suddenly appeared, there’s a long historical tradition of low-carb diets. They date back decades, to folks like Dr. Atkins,3 as well as hundreds, if not thousands of years prior.4 Here’s a helpful history of the low-carb keto diet for you!

Following the Keto Diet Since 2014

I went on a Keto Diet in 2014. In addition to the benefits, I’m super excited to share the history of the low-carb keto diet with you. Why? Because it’s the perfect intersection of my college education (BA in history from Columbia University) with the self-taught medical research skills I’ve gained over the last 25 years of studying yoga, Ayurveda, and traditional medicine.

The Best Keto Diet Recipes

Since I went Keto in 2014, I’ve loved learning more about the history and science behind it. During this period I’ve also compiled a guide to all of my low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) recipes for you. You’ll definitely want to check out my Keto Diet Recipes page if you’re a follower of this incredible diet!

Low-Carb Keto Cookbooks

Right now I’m providing macros for all three of my Low-Carb Cookbooks. I haven’t yet gone through the 1,000 free recipes on my website yet to calculate nutrition info but I’m working on it! If you’re deciding between my books, the third one, Paleo Cooking from Elana’s Pantry has the best low-carb recipes. And I share a sneak peek of every single macro in this New York Times best selling cookbook!

The History of Low-Carb Keto Diets

Understanding the Low-Carb Keto Diet is more urgent than ever. More than 80% of adults in the US are now considered overweight or obese.5 Those of us at the forefront of the Paleo Diet movement know that this hasn’t always been the case. Mankind’s original diet is that of a hunter-gather who eats animal protein and forages for nuts and berries.6

Low-Carb Diets in the Age of Enlightenment

During the agrarian period of the last 10,000 years or so is when man became afflicted with the diseases of civilization.7 Due to these issues, we see some of the first organized attempts at low-carb diets during the Age of Enlightenment, the period from around 1685 to 1815. During this time European philosophy, politics, and science were radically transformed. Knowledge of dietary medicine also grew tremendously. In the 1790’s, just after the French Revolution, John Rollo, a Scottish military doctor reportedly treated patients with diabetes with a low-carbohydrate diet.8

Low-Carb Diets in the Victorian Era

In the 1860’s, William Banting, a formerly obese Englishman published his, “Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public” which outlined a diet for weight loss in which he gave up bread, sugar, beer, and potatoes.9

Charlie Foundation and the Classic Ketogenic Diet

In 1923, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic designed the Classic Ketogenic Diet. Created by Dr. Russell Wilder as a treatment for epilepsy, it is considered the original Ketogenic Diet. According to the Charlie Foundation a 4:1 ratio of fat to protein and carbs is the gold-standard for classic Keto, a 3:1 is also included in descriptions of the classic Keto Diet in most publications:

Classic Keto is a structured diet. The ratio of this diet can be increased for a more therapeutic outcome, and also liberalized for better tolerance. This diet is also considered a low glycemic therapy and results in steady glucose and insulin levels.10

Low-Carb Diets After World War II

In the late 1950’s Dr. Richard Mackarness published the book, Eat Fat and Grow Slim.11 This book challenged classic calorie theory and praised healthy low-carb, high-fat primitive diets, that lacked processed modern foods, such as those followed by the Inuit. A number of other low-carb diet books and papers were published during this time.

Modern Low-Carb Diets and the Atkins Diet

In 1972, Dr. Robert Atkins came out with one of the most influential diet plans of the 20th century. His book, Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, has sold over 15 million copies. Atkins believed in complementary medicine using acupuncture, ozone therapy, and herbs in his clinic. His low-carb diet approach was based on the work of Dr. Alfred Pennington a physician who used the diet during WWII. Pennington’s work on the subject was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association12

What is the Keto Diet?

Although the term is loosely thrown around today, the Keto Diet is not just another low-carb diet. It is a high-fat diet that is low in carbohydrates and protein. In fact, even if you’re on a low-carb diet, it is not the Keto Diet if you are eating more protein and carbohydrates combined than fat.

What is the Best Keto Diet?

The question I’m asked most often is, what is the best Keto Diet? Since we’re all biochemical individuals this question is a bit tricky. I followed a 1.5:1 Keto Diet for a while, but found I do best on a 1:1 Keto Diet, due to an increased need for protein due to healing from multiple sclerosis. Following the 1:1 Keto Diet means eating the same amount in grams of fat as from protein and carbs combined.

How Do You Define the Keto Diet?

People follow the Keto Diet in many different ways and this list of resources and papers documenting its history is by no means exhaustive!. Do you follow a Low-Carb, High-Fat (LCHF) Diet? If so what’s your definition of the Keto Diet? Leave a comment and let me know!

This is such a great article! Been following you for years and love your recipes.


38 responses to “The History of Low-Carb Keto Diets”

  1. Interested in diet or foods that help with those diagnosed with adult epilepsy and anxiety disorder. Thank you.

  2. Great article! I’ve followed you for about three years, right after going Paleo. (I’m not sure I could have made the conversion without your recipes!) Paleo was a game changer for me, but I’ve continued to fight inflammation and bloating. I just finished my 2nd week of the carnivore diet (meat,salt,water). I decided to try it for a month, so far I’m loving it and don’t know if I will go back to eating plants.

      • “I don’t know if I will go back to eating plants”–isn’t it amazing how such a wide variety of approaches can work for human beings?! There are entire systems devoted to pushing plant-based eating, and lots of people really sold on that. Just a good reminder that we can’t be too dogmatic about food, when relating to other people. We really have to pay attention to what works for us as individuals.

    • That is interesting. Did the carnivore diet address your bloat problem? I suffer from bloat even after I switched to Paloe/Keto. The only time I don’t have bloat is when I fast (intermittently)

      • Thanks for your comment Farah! IF is so helpful to me in dealing with a number of digestive issues :-)

    • Diane, we’re all bio-chemical individuals, so that would depend on quite a few things. The person’s constitution, or dosha, as we say in Ayurveda, lab work, amount of sleep, amount of EMF exposure, and a number of other factors.

    • Leonara, no you’re totally right since a gram of fat has 9 calories and a gram of protein or carbs has 4 :-)

  3. Elana, in looking at your Keto recipe for porridge I was wondering about the seeds and nuts – are they raw or roasted?
    I really appreciate all that I’m learning from your blogs.
    Becky D.

  4. Is paleo the same as keto? and is that why you are recommending your third book….I have all three. How does one go about finding a true Keto food list?

    • JoAnn, Keto and Paleo are somewhat similar though also totally different. I know that is confusing! Stay tuned and I will write a post explaining the difference :-)

  5. I never realized that my BA in History from Columbia was part of the effort I have been making on behalf of my middle daughter’s health. She just reminded me that it is time to make your pumpkin pie recipe!

  6. Hi Elena, I’m wondering if you’d do a What I Eat in Day post? I’m curious what a keto diet looks like from an on-the-ground perspective.


  7. I haven’t tried a keto diet, but if I were to do so, I would do 1:1 or 1.5:1 as you have done. Since I’m fortunate to not be dealing with neurological or other condition for which keto can be therapeutic, I would be trying it for long-term lifestyle and general health. I have other annoying conditions for which I think go ing very low carb would be detrimental.

    Two questions Elana:
    1) Approx at what level are your fat and protein (isolated) grams per day (grams or ounces)?
    2) Do you also do intermittent fasting?

    I’ve tried IF but I have a difficult time with it. I like the idea of it for overall health (and keto effect), circadian rhythm entrainment and autophagy, but I find it very difficult to do. Curious about your experiences with it.

    • Susan, thanks for your comment! I’m going to do a post with my macros soon! I do IF every day. Sometimes don’t eat until dinner, and I don’t usually eat breakfast. Fasting is incredibly anti-inflammatory and gives me a ton of energy :-)

      • Hello Elana, does this mean that you do not eat breakfast, ever, or only on IF days? I am following your work closely (I am a supporter for years as well) as I embark on Keto after recent diagnoses. Breakfast, we’re told, is the metabolism powerhouse BUT for many years, IF exactly as yours (no food till dinner) was my only hope for something resembling steady energy. May I ask you to elaborate on this and how your IF plays in? Blessings

        • Sarah, thanks for your comment! I’ve been skipping breakfast every day since sometime around 2014, maybe a bit earlier than that. I’m not sure I actually realized I was doing IF, I just don’t like to eat when I’m not very hungry, so it was a natural fit. I’m very thirsty when I wake up and drink a quart of hot water upon rising (after brushing my teeth and doing some of the Ayurvedic cleansing of the senses). Lunch depends on how hungry I am and what I’m trying to achieve. Sometimes I really need a hit of protein mid-day which is why I moved my own Keto Diet to 1:1 from the original 1:5 to 1. Thanks for your support for all of these years and I hope you’ll keep me posted on how you’re doing :-)

    • Thank you, Elena, for all of your amazing recipes that are delicious and simplified. Your story is incredibly inspiring! I started doing The Wahls Protocol, Paleo Plus, about a month ago to address a long list of neurological symptoms and body-wide distress from a few big hits of toxic exposure. I am so excited for the specific guidelines that she gives and believe this is a great tool for anyone looking for optimal health in a toxic world. The entire protocol is designed for mitochondrial health and, by staying in nurtritional ketosis, I feel like I am really doing everything I can to ignite the genius healing that my body is designed to do. She does give specific daily doses of meat, but I’m not sure of the ratio. I have already seen a good number of symptoms improving so I’m pretty excited to see how this builds.

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