Skip to main content

UC San Diego Launches New Clinical Trial for Anorexia Nervosa

Fish are high in protein but low in carbohydrates, making them a key component of many ketogenic diets. Photo by David B. Townsend/Unsplash

The trial, supported by a gift from Baszucki Group, will test the safety and efficacy of the ketogenic diet for preventing relapse in people with anorexia

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, approximately 28 million people in the United States are living with an eating disorder, and an average of 10% of patients die within ten years of disease onset, making eating disorders the deadliest of all psychiatric illnesses.

One of the most dangerous eating disorders is anorexia nervosa, which causes a distorted perception of one’s weight. This skewed perception triggers extreme weight control behaviors that can result in malnourishment or starvation.

While the main drivers of anorexia nervosa are psychological, scientists have learned that metabolism may also play a role in the disease’s development. This relationship will be put to the test in a new clinical trial from researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine, which will explore how inducing ketosis, a metabolic state that occurs when your body burns fat for energy instead of glucose, could help prevent relapse. The study is supported by a $235,000 gift from Baszucki Group.

“For several decades, it has been hypothesized that anorexia nervosa is a metabolic disorder of psychological origin,” said principal investigator Guido Frank, MD, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. “Our study will investigate how nutritional ketosis impacts brain circuitry and behavior in anorexia nervosa and ultimately, psychiatric disease.”

While the weight loss associated with anorexia is generally reversible, especially in a controlled treatment program, the psychological aspects of the illness often persist, causing many people to relapse even after returning to a normal weight. The new trial will help determine whether ketogenic therapy, which involves eating a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet to induce ketosis, could help reduce the cognitive and emotional symptoms of anorexia nervosa.

Ketogenic therapy has been shown to stabilize brain networks and is known to be an effective treatment for certain neurological conditions, including epilepsy. Recent and ongoing clinical trials also report promising results for the use of ketogenic therapy in the treatment of other serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.  

The new 14-week trial will study 20 young adults with anorexia nervosa who have returned to a normal body mass index but continue to have high impairment from the illness. Study participants will be carefully assessed and monitored, and will be provided personalized guidance about ketogenic nutrition from a registered dietician during the course of the study. In addition to testing whether the ketogenic diet can reduce the behavioral symptoms of anorexia nervosa, the study will also explore how genetics affects the body’s response to ketosis. For more information on the study, please visit

Miles Martin