Although it is stated in my bio, for the sake of this article and anyone who may be reading it, I want to make it very clear that I am not a doctor. This article will address the common question of whether or not a keto diet can help with cancer. These are not my opinions and everything that follows will be sourced to scientific studies. This article should not serve as medical advice and you should consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment plan.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s get right to the information you’re looking for. Can eating a ketogenic diet help with cancer?
In order to grow and multiply, cancer cells seek out sugar in the blood and carbohydrates to feed from. Since you consume very few carbs and little sugar on keto, you may be able to starve the cancer cells of the energy they need to grow, allowing your cancer treatments to be more effective.
In this article, I’m going to take you through a deep dive into what the ketogenic diet is and how it can be used as a tool to fight cancer. Keep reading to learn more.
What Is Keto?
In the simplest terms, keto is a diet that is very low in carbohydrates. The number of carbs that can be consumed varies from person to person, but most people limit their net carbs (carbohydrates minus fiber and sugar alcohol) to 20g or less per day. Additionally, your diet would be high in healthy fats and moderate in protein. This combination of eating puts your body into a state of ketosis.
According to Healthline, ketosis is a natural metabolic state in which your body lacks carbohydrates so it is forced to begin burning body fat for fuel instead. Most people use keto as a way to lose weight, but this way of eating actually offers a number of other amazing benefits.
Many studies have been performed on keto and they’ve found some pretty exciting benefits. The diet has been found to limit the number of epilepsy-induced seizures in children, and in some cases, stopping them completely. The ketones formed in ketosis can provide energy for your brain, assist in losing more weight than dieters following a low-calorie diet, improve risk factors for heart disease, completely reverse type-2 diabetes, and ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
There are many other benefits of a ketogenic diet, but I don’t want to take up too much time focusing on things that aren’t related to the topic. Feel free to read my articles here and here to learn more about these benefits.
Isn’t Fat Bad For You?
Growing up, you’ve probably heard all about how you should avoid foods that are high in fat. Whether it was a public service announcement on the after-school specials or your health teacher reading from her lesson plan, the message stayed the same: fat is not good for you!
This way of thinking started when Americans began getting noticeably heavier and, as a result, becoming sick. Doctors began seeing more and more patients coming down with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Since many of their patients were getting fatter, it only made sense to conclude that dietary fat was the culprit.
Unfortunately, this led to carbohydrates being recommended as a healthier option. Nutritionists were recommending cereal or oatmeal over traditional breakfasts like eggs and sausage links. It didn’t matter that some cereal options were packed full of sugar because they were low in fat and that’s all that mattered. Suddenly pasta dishes were recommended over steaks. Even prepackaged foods were given the green light because they had limited amounts of fat, even if they were processed.
Without any studies being performed, nutritionists and other professionals in the dietary field proclaimed that not only were all carbohydrates, regardless of whether they were made up of whole grains or grains that were highly processed with a ton of sugar, could protect you from gaining weight. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they were sure that studies would find that a carb-heavy diet would go a long way to curing cardiovascular disease, and even some form of cancers, according to a paper published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
As people are happily chowing down on their bowls of sugary cereal, foot-long sub sandwiches, and pizza, something unexpected happened. People weren’t getting healthier by eliminating fat from their diets. Instead, American life expectancy dropped to an all-time low in the modern era, and instances of diabetes and obesity skyrocketed. Everything the professionals thought they knew about nutrition was wrong and they had to scramble to start studies so they could figure out where the mistakes were made.
The Cancer Diagnosis
It doesn’t matter who you are or what type it is, the day you receive your cancer diagnosis is a somber day. Everyone has a different thought process when it comes to hearing the news. Many people have questions about what led to the diagnosis and what they could have done differently. It doesn’t help anyone to dwell on what could have been done in the past. Instead, it’s best to focus on what the future holds and giving yourself the best chance at a positive outcome.
One of the most common things that come to mind is to live a healthier lifestyle. After all, a healthier lifestyle can only help aid in the fight. For many people, the first part of a healthier lifestyle means it’s time to change the food they eat. For a long time, nutritionists who specialized in clients with cancer recommended a diet that was heavy in fruits and vegetables. They would suggest a diet that was heavy in whole grains while limiting red meat to no more than two to three times per week.
Now, there is new and exciting studies emerging that are investigating how a ketogenic diet plays a role in fighting cancer cells.
Can Keto Stop Cancer Growth?
According to Jocelyn Tan, who works as an oncologist for the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, cancers have their own metabolic state that uses glutamine and glucose as their primary source of fuel. Targeted therapies are being studied that may prove to be able to find molecules that are leading to the cancer growing and block their path.
While these are exciting developments, Dr. Tan notes that the majority of cancers have more than one path that signals the cancer to grow, making the targeted therapy ineffective. This occurs because cancer cells can adapt, almost as if they’re intelligent. If you block one of the paths, they’ll just look in another direction until they find the nutrition they’re looking for.
Glucose plays a major role in sending signals to tumors, letting them know where the different paths are. Instead of blocking one path, a ketogenic diet can be used to actually limit the amount of glucose in the body, making it harder for the cancer cells to figure out where to go, and potentially making the targeted therapies work better.
Can A Ketogenic Diet Cure Cancer?
As of now, there is no single food or diet plan that can cure cancer. There are some promising studies that may show that doctors could be getting closer. According to MD Anderson Cancer Center at The University of Texas, studies on patients with brain tumors are showing promise. The same can be said in studies of mice, which show a low-carb diet slowing the growth of cancer cells.
It is important to note that some forms of cancer may not react positively to a ketogenic diet. When studying different types of diets and the effectiveness of breast cancer, the recurrence of some forms was more greatly reduced in those following a diet that was low in fat.
More and more researchers have taken note of the importance of diet when it comes to cancer. More and more research is popping up in the form of clinical trials that have cancer patients consume a keto diet to see how it reacts when combined with radiation, chemotherapy, or other forms of cancer treatment. As the studies conclude, we should have a better idea of what role keto may plan in battling or perhaps even preventing cancer in the future.
Should A Cancer Patient Eat Keto?
Many people eat a ketogenic diet every day with no issues. If you’re wanting to start keto because you read an article like this and you think it can help, then it’s important to treat it as though it is prescribed medication. What I mean by this is you should treat it like a medical diet and speak to your doctors before you begin.
In the past, many oncologists would scoff at the thought of eating a high-fat diet in hopes that your cancer may respond, but the times are rapidly changing. Eating keto for cancer-fighting abilities is still very much in the early stages of learning the pros and cons. With this in mind, have a conversation with your doctor and let them know your thoughts. Most likely, they’ll be familiar with keto and can give you advice. If not, don’t be afraid to find another cancer specialist who is familiar with the diet and get their advice. You may even be able to add another professional to your team.
How Do I Get Into Ketosis?
If you’ve spoken to your doctor and they’ve given the green light for you to start a ketogenic diet, you may be left with that feeling where you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do next. This is completely normal. As if you weren’t already overwhelmed with the cancer diagnosis, now you have to learn a whole new way of eating.
The goal of keto is to put your body into ketosis, which is what stops your body from burning glucose and starts the fat-burning process. Ketosis is also what will starve the cancer cells of the glucose they want so badly.
The most common way to get into ketosis is through a ketogenic diet. Your diet will need to be high in healthy fats, moderate in protein, and low in carbohydrates. Note that this says healthy fats.
Some examples of healthy fats for keto include:
- Avocados (avocado oil works too)
- Cheese (click here for 12 cheeses you should be eating)
- Nuts (specifically pistachios, pecans, and almonds)
- Flax seeds
- Whole eggs
- Chia seeds
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna, anchovies)
- Full-fat Greek yogurt
While we’re at it, here are some fats you’ll want to avoid on keto:
- Artificial trans fats
- Fried foods
- Processed meats
There is no specific time frame to get into ketosis. Some people may be able to get into ketosis within a few days while it may take others a week or more. If you find you’re having difficulty getting into ketosis, intermittent fasting may help.
Much research continues to be conducted about the exact benefits a low-carb diet has on cancer. The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California San Francisco states studies are showing more and more evidence that restricting the number of carbohydrates you consume can not only reduce the risk of developing cancer, but it can also enhance your current treatment, limit how large tumors will grow, and extend the length of survival.
These studies also are not finding much evidence that there are any adverse effects associated with a ketogenic lifestyle. In fact, most cancer patients lose weight during treatment, but a diet low in carbs can actually aid your body in keeping the muscle mass you have, which in turn will improve your quality of life while receiving treatment.