Could broccoli prevent cancer? Intermittent fasting improve metabolism? Can foregoing carbohydrates cure children with epilepsy? A growing body of evidence suggests that food can, in fact, be medicine—and physicians are prescribing certain foods, or telling patients to eliminate them, to enhance health.

In fact, the idea isn’t revolutionary—ketogenic diets have been recommended for children with epilepsy for a century, based on the idea that bypassing carbohydrates prompts the body to burn fat rather than sugar. That sequence of activity seems to change the wiring in brains of children with epilepsy. And Christopher Palmer, MD, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, thinks that mechanism may also prove helpful in healing patients with mental illness, whose overtaxed brain cells may not process fuel from sugar effectively.

“Their cells are putting out an SOS signal: ‘Feed me, feed me — go eat some more,’” Palmer says. But all that extra glucose still can’t get into their cells, so they’re overeating and gaining weight, but still “not getting quite enough energy.”

Since a ketogenic diet provides a different kind of fuel, he adds, evidence seems to suggest that it can reduce anxiety, psychosis and other mental health symptoms.

“The good news in all of this is that these things are reversible. Metabolism can be changed by what we eat and by exercise,” says Palmer. He’s currently involved in three ongoing, landmark ketogenic diet and mental health studies worldwide. “That is a really exciting area of research.”

Read more on the research, and how the diet has helped one McLean patient, at WBUR.

Topics: Behavioral Health, Patient Experience, Prevention

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