There are pluses and minuses to a ketogenic diet for cancer patients. The idea that a certain diet or a particular food can “cure” cancer is a myth. The many facets to the life cycle and growth of cancer cells, as well as the innumerable variations in human genetics and health, ensure that it is too complex of a goal for any one food or diet to accomplish the desired effect in every situation.
But a high quality diet that includes a broad range of anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, immune-supportive, cancer-preventative foods can go a long way towards improving overall health and outcomes. Researchers are finding new links to cancer, diet, and nutrition every day.
Diet is often the first place to start when one is trying to improve overall health. Studies have shown that a good diet can definitely increase your health and well being.
What is Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet (also known as the keto diet) is a low carbohydrate / high fat / adequate protein diet. But unlike a lot of other low-carb diets which focus on protein, a keto plan focuses on fats, which will supply as much as 90% of daily calories. And it’s not the type of diet to try as an experiment.
The goal of the ketogenic diet is to force your body into using a different type of fuel. Instead of relying on sugar (glucose) that comes from carbohydrates (such as grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits), the ketogenic diet forces your body to rely on ketones, a type of fuel that is produced by the liver from stored fat.
Burning fat is an ideal way to lose weight, but first you must help the liver to produce the ketones.
When following a ketogenic diet, you are required to deprive yourself of carbohydrates. On average, carbohydrate intake is limited to 20-50 grams per day. Keep in mind that a medium-sized banana has about 27 grams of carbs! It typically takes a few days to reach a state of ketosis. Eating too much protein can interfere with the process.
Theory of Ketogenic Diet for Cancer
All cells use energy that the body provides in order to survive. That energy comes from digestion of the foods we consume. The most abundant and commonly used fuel is sugar in the form of glucose. Glucose is the by-product of digestion of carbohydrates. All cells use glucose and oxygen in a series of reactions called glucose metabolism.
In the 1920s, Dr. Otto Warburg found that cancer cells use much larger amounts of glucose than healthy cells. Unlike healthy cells, cancer cells were converting glucose into energy (ATP) without the use of oxygen even in an oxygenated environment. This observed effect is called the Warburg Effect.
This oxygen-free process (anaerobic metabolism) of cancer cells is extremely wasteful and uses much more glucose to produce the same amount of energy as a healthy cell would. This energy deficit can lead to cancer cachexia, which is loss of muscle mass and weight caused by cancer’s draining affect on the body’s energy needs.
The Ketogenic diet has been proposed as an adjuvant (assistive/supportive) therapy when used along with chemotherapy in cancer treatment. The Ketogenic Diet in Cancer Therapy targets this Warburg effect. Furthermore, some cancers lack the ability to metabolize ketone bodies due to mitochondrial dysfunction.
Thus, the rationale in providing a fat-rich, low-carbohydrate diet in cancer therapy is to reduce circulating glucose levels and induce ketosis. The end goal is that cancer cells are starved of energy while normal cells adapt their metabolism to use ketone bodies to survive.
By changing the source of energy from glucose to ketones, the ketogenic diet could in theory effectively starve cancer cells. Furthermore, by reducing blood glucose, levels of insulin and insulin-like growth factor, which are important drivers of cancer cell proliferation, also drop.
Does Ketogenic Diet Work for Cancer?
For most people, the keto diet will result in weight loss. This happens because carbohydates, your body’s normal source for most of its energy needs, are depleted and your body must turn to other energy sources to keep functioning. Ketones are the next most efficient energy source for the body. Ketones are a type of acid produced by your liver when consuming a higher fat diet.
While there is a potential for a ketogenic diet to help some cancer patients, it can also cause some difficult and unwanted side effect.
One of the main issues is weight loss. The ketogenic diet is one of the most effective and quick fat-loss diets out there. But, as anyone who has known someone dealing with cancer—or has personally dealt with cancer themselves—can tell you, chronic weight loss in the form of cachexia can be a life threatening side effect of cancer.
Another issue that can result from a ketogenic diet is digestive problems. Any types of cancer affecting the digestive system, including the liver, the pancreas, the stomach, and the bowels, can make it difficult for the body to process the proteins and fats consumed in a ketogenic diet.
Is a Ketogenic Diet the Right Choice for Me?
While almost everyone can benefit from eating healthier and lowering sugar intake, there are a few special factors to consider when thinking about a ketogenic diet for cancer.
Cancer Type and the Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet has been studied as a treatment for primary aggressive brain cancer. A clinical trial of glioblastoma patients used a ketogenic diet together with a standard treatment protocol of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. The study was initiated after some indication of successful results in previous studies with animal models.
Avoid a ketogenic diet in cancers where extreme weight loss is already occurring due to digestion difficulties or compromised enzymatic processes, such as in pancreatic cancer.
When following a ketogenic diet, there is a difference between ‘dirty’ keto and ‘clean’ keto. There is a trend towards avoiding all carbohydrates, including all vegetables, and loading up on unhealthy fats and proteins like fatty bacon and greasy burgers. This ‘dirty’ keto diet ignores the vital microbiome (the billions of bacteria that live in your gut) as well as the micronutrients (minerals and vitamins) which come from plants. A properly formulated ketogenic diet is primarily plant-based.
This information is not medical advice and is certainly not intended to replace the advice or attention of your personal physician or other healthcare professional. Therefore, consult your doctor or healthcare professional before making any changes to your diet or starting a supplement program.