Can A Ketogenic Diet Cure Cancer?

I’ve recently received a number of queries from patients and practitioners who are curious about a handful of studies and anecdotal reports that indicate a ketogenic diet may help to curtail cancer growth. For those not familiar with the ketogenic diet, it’s a very low carbohydrate diet that contains moderate amounts of protein and a high percentage of fats.

I prefer to think of foods in their whole, natural forms (for example, almonds, apples, asparagus, blueberries, oatmeal, olives, potatoes, rye, and salmon) instead of in reductionist terms of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Keeping this in mind, the primary purpose of dietary carbohydrates is for fuel—the body converts carbohydrates via the liver into glucose, which is used for everything from powering muscles to brain function. When confronted with a lack of carbohydrates, the body switches to burning fats for energy by converting fats (again via the liver) into ketone bodies.

Ketogenic Diet

 

Here’s why cutting back on carbohydrates appears to curtail cancer growth: Cancer cells primarily use glucose for fuel, but healthy cells primarily use oxygen and secondary glucose, fatty acids, and ketone bodies. The idea behind the ketogenic diet is to starve cancer cells by depriving them of glucose, while continuing to provide healthy cells with ketone bodies for energy. On the surface, the ketogenic diet makes sense. But I don’t recommend it, because although a ketogenic diet may be an improvement over a nutritionally poor diet, it’s not what I consider to be an ideal diet. For one thing, if deprived of glucose, cancer cells can adapt, diversify, and hijack our metabolic system, altering fatty acids and certain amino acids like glutamine for energy production. They can also make glucose through the catabolic breakdown of healthy tissue. When this gets out of control, cancer-related cachexia develops, resulting in weight loss, muscle atrophy, and loss of appetite.

Although I am not a proponent of a ketogenic diet, I’m not opposed to any diet that shifts someone from unhealthy eating habits to a healthier diet. In fact, my dietary recommendations share some similarities with the ketogenic diet: I wholeheartedly support eliminating refined carbohydrates, simple sugars, processed foods, and GMO foods. And I recommend a moderate intake of healthful proteins and plenty of good fats (such as avocados, extra virgin olive oil, olives, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds). But I do not advise eliminating or severely restricting whole-food “slow” carbohydrates. Eating a wide variety of fresh vegetables (including high carbohydrate root vegetables), fresh fruits, and whole grains provides your body with an abundance of essential phytonutrients that offer potent protection against all types of cancer, as well as every other degenerative disease.

Grains have gotten a lot of bad press in the past few years—it seems that grains are the current dietary “villain” and targeted as the cause of all of our health problems. I see this as just another wild pendulum swing in dietary advice. Whole grains are not the problem. A massive amount of research has documented just the opposite, showing that whole grains are protective against cancer and chronic disease. I have a simple general visual rule that helps in planning healthful meals: Your plate should contain 50% vegetables, 25% whole-grain or root vegetables and 25% protein. The protein and grain portion should be roughly the size of your fist, with double the amount of vegetables.

Eating in this way will help to keep your blood sugar (glucose) and insulin levels within healthy parameters. The link between elevated glucose and insulin levels and cancer incidence is well accepted within the medical community. Studies have shown that people with the highest fasting serum glucose levels suffer higher death rates from all cancers combined when compared to people with the lowest levels. Other biomarkers related to cancer and insulin resistance include fasting insulin, hemoglobin A1C, C-peptide, and leptin-to-adiponectin, both of which are adipose hormones. The association is strongest for pancreatic cancer, but significant associations have also been found for cancers of the esophagus, liver, and colon/rectum
in men, and of the breast, cervix, and liver in women. Elevated fasting serum glucose levels and a diagnosis of diabetes have been shown to be independent risk factors for several major cancers, and the risk rises with increased levels of fasting serum glucose.

While we’re on the topic of carbohydrates, let’s take a quick look at fructose. A sugar that naturally occurs in fruits, honey, and some vegetables, fructose naturally occurring in these foods is not a problem for most people. Natural, whole food sources of fructose are rich sources of beneficial phytonutrients and satisfy our innate craving for sweet flavors. Problems arise when these naturally sweet foods are processed and refined and are no longer in their whole, fiber-rich form. Obtaining fructose from fresh fruits, where it occurs in conjunction with water, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, naturally limits the amount of fructose we can ingest at any one time. However, in our modern world, fructose is no longer confined to whole foods in the diet. Just like any other sugar, once fructose has been processed, refined, concentrated, and added to other foods and drinks (such as soda)— most often as high fructose corn syrup—it has significant deleterious effects on the body.

Glucose and fructose are metabolized very differently—while every cell in the body can use glucose, the liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose. When large amounts of fructose are consumed, the liver is forced to turn fructose into fat, which raises blood levels of VLDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increases levels of uric acid, causes insulin resistance, and contributes to leptin resistance (a hormone that controls appetite and fat storage). Excess fructose consumption appears to be strongly related to obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

To recap, my recommendation is not to eliminate healthful sugars (fruits) or complex carbohydrates (whole grains and root vegetables) from the diet, but rather to control blood glucose and insulin within a narrow range by eliminating simple sugars and processed foods, exercising regularly, managing stress, and getting enough sleep. I try to outline and balance out a diet for an individual based on these areas: geographic location, season, energetic type (deficiency/excess, Yin/Yang, organ systems weakness), traditional diet (ethnic background, taste preferences), chronic and/or acute conditions or disease, nutrigenomics (diet-gene interaction), lifestyle (work/exercise), and environmental influences (toxic exposure).

Diets should always be tailored to the individual. For example, if you are sedentary, then you should probably eat less of foods high in carbohydrates and/or fats (even healthful sources). If you are active, then you should be eating more to provide your body with sufficient energy and nutrients. As an example of climate and geographic influence, the colder the climate, the more fat and less starch people traditionally consume.

Finally, I recommend including specific foods and culinary herbs with insulinotrophic actions that aid in balancing blood insulin and glucose levels. These foods and herbs also have demonstrated cancer preventive properties: Bitter melon (Momordica charantia), Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), and common herbs like cinnamon, rosemary, and sage. All of these foundational lifestyle habits are proven to support the regulation of glucose and insulin levels. Eating and living in this way optimizes health and will help to prevent all degenerative diseases, including cancer.


28 Comments

  1. Victor Walker

    The reason that systemic metabolic Ketosis induces spontaneous remissions is that fasting, cachexia, and depressed insulin production prevent insulin-dependent active transport of glucose through the cell membranes of all cells and ketone bodies enter cells and cross the blood-brain barrier by passive transport. Cancer cell accelerated metabolism and division is dependent on glucose and if cancer cells do adapt to ketone metabolism, their growth rate must decrease, in fact, their DNA repair mechanisms are stimulated by the acetone facilitated histone acetylation. Cancer is a de-differentiated cellular state similar to regenerative blastula tissues in truncated reptile tails or truncated amphibian limbs. Embryological studies in the 1980’s demonstrated that you could induce amphibian limb regeneration or induce cancer by injecting a carcinogen near or further away from an existing limb. Tumor central necrosis, the development of appetite suppression, and cachexia are all part of the natural host defense mechanisms that results in the spontaneous remission of cancer, mammalian damaged tissue regeneration.

  2. I am happy I found your blog. I just received an email from Dr. Mercola about the Ketogenic diet and how it may cure cancer. Let me start out by saying, I am a cancer survivor. I have been in the trenches and when I was in treatment, a few friends tried to convince me to ditch the chemo/radiation and switch to the Gerson Method. Two patients that switched (one had breast cancer and the other colon cancer) both died within a year.

    I am a proponent of alternative healthcare but no two cancer patients are alike. We are individuals with our own health histories. I had to go conventional because my cancer spread and my clock was running out. My treatment worked for me, but when I started to recover I changed my diet to NON-GMO, organic, vegan. I began with juicing, then progressed to green smoothies. Today I am cancer free 2 years.

    What concerns me is that articles that claim there is an alternative cure for cancer, but doesn’t cite numbers of actual cure rates, gives those who are sick a false sense of security. You are the only one who clarified what healthy foods are.

    The average person reading articles like Mercolas might think that eating fast food burgers will cure them. The average person doesn’t investigate further.

    I believe a combination of conventional and alternative/complementary is a good mix. And of course always use common sense.

    Namaste!
    Inge

    • Donnie

      Thank you for sharing your story, Inge. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    • Anonymous

      The reason for not showing numbers is quite simple:

      The board of doctors will not approve official tests on humans. As it is right now, tests are limited to mice in labs.

      Why do you think it is like so? If this diet gets approved as an official treatment for cancer (any cancer) and turns out that the rate of survival goes only 1% above the rate of conventional treatments what doo you think would happen? Big pharma would lose millions of dollars, doctors would lose millions of dollars and that is EXACTLY what they don’t want. So instead of coming up with a real cure, they simply make sure they keep you sick enough so you have to back to your doc, in turns, your doc will prescribe you with more meds for big pharma’s and your doctor’s profit.

      Doctors nowaday are not even allowed to suggest diet as treatment as they can be suspended and even lose their license.

      Research Dr. Thomas Seyfried PhD or watch his explaination about the misconception of cancer being a metabolic disease and not a genetic disease. You can watch the full presentation here:

      http://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=4&cad=rja&ved=0CE0QtwIwAw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DsBjnWfT8HbQ&ei=sWzUUbT3LNPG4AOby4DgDQ&usg=AFQjCNFL981fs4qDK5uzLwvltuxbaExdhQ&sig2=mIBB0xjuw_GsONPbXldQnw&bvm=bv.48705608,d.dmg

      Towards the end, he will explain why it is not out for official tests.

      Enjoy!

    • thanks for telling this, really appreciate

  3. Rochelle

    Hi,
    I have had lymphoma 2x over 20 years (im 35) and now have been diagnosed with breast cancer. (Locally advanced) i have switched my refined carb diet for clean food this week, but am finding all the info for cancer patients confusing. I was taking insulin during my last (4th) pregnancy an problems started with my breast, i switched to a vegan diet, decreased my blood sugar. But…… Also developed cancer in my breast.
    This week i cleaned my diet right up, its close to the ketogeni. Diet, i eat leafy greens (heavy on cabbage and chard) nuts, avacado af peppers. I dress my salads with lemon and coconut oil.
    I am eating little bits of protein an fat, mostly in nuts but addin some chicken and salmon. And i am drinking 2 ltrs of water a day.
    I feel fabulouse, im on my second cycle of chemo, and on chemo weeks i eat a little more fat an protein . I dont miss carbs at all. Before i switched i was craving marshmallow, cakes, popcorn, french fries and i was listening to those cravings. Now im eating clean food, i crave nothing and am not hungry. I take this as a good sign. The mass in my breast is shrinking, there is no more blood. Could be the chemo or it could be my diet. Or both. Either way, i do appreciate the modetat views of your article and how its more balanced. I think i will start including whole grain oatmeal and quinoa. Thanks for the smile!

    • Rochelle,
      I’m glad to hear that the you feel that the diet is working for you!
      My partner has just been diagnosed with a 2.5cm malignant nodule in his lung and has started chemotherapy last week. We have been looking into additional therapies and from all of the research the ketogenic diet sounds like it could be the best one out there. It’s very encouraging to hear people say that it is working. Now that you are a few more weeks along from your post, have you had any further positive change? Best wishes to you and everyone else on here!

  4. Dominic Pampalon

    A cancer cells cannot adapt to a ketone diet. Cancer cells feed on glucose. Healthy cells also feed on glucose but have the metabolic flexibility to turn to ketone as a source of energy… a metabolic flexibility cancer cells don’t have.

    By turning to a ketone diet along with a theraputic fast will ultimately starve cancer cells to death. This diet is not only good for cancer patients but also for people with degenerative diseases such as arthritis and diabetes.

    In the case of brain cancer (or any cancer for that matter), when a patient undergo radiation, radiation creates inflamation. to reduce inflamation, doctors will give the patient steroids which brings the blood’s sugar to the level of a diabetic. Result: You have high levels of glucose and high levels of glutamin to fuel the cancer cells resulting in faster growth of tumors. That is why, the 5-year remission rate is under 3% with conventional treatments (surgery, chemo and radiation).

  5. Dominique

    My mom, after two Brain surgeries and misdiagnosis, is now battling OSTEOGENICSARCOMA. We are trying to get her to MD Anderson but in the mean time I have changed her diet which before was overboard with white sugar and sweets. She and II really want to try this diet but her Dr. says he can’t commend yes or no because there are no clear studies or clinical proof that it cures cancer. I have read that the diet must be supervised by a doctor or nutritionist…….Any advice on where to go from here? Because I am very overwhelmed and need a little direction from people who are experiencing the fight with cancer and those who are optimistic about healthy eating being a cure. Thanks

    • Hi Dominique, Thank you for your comments. Please check your email. We will provide you with more detailed information there. Thanks!

  6. Raouf tabet

    My little girl 9 years have a tumor brain astrosytome pylosityque grade 1 and she was operate 3 time but not all removed cause the place in the brain is difficulte tronc cerebrally , now the tumor is growing slowly . The question is there is a kind of nutrition that help to increase the tumor

    • Donnie

      Hi Rauof – Please check your email for additional information regarding your question. Thank you for reaching out and for following the blog.

  7. I have tonsel cancer it’s in my lymph node . They say I need surgery, chemo and radiation . I’ve started juicing and trying to eat greener but do t know what to and not to eat. Thanks

    • Donnie

      Hi Rick – Thank you for reaching out and for following the blog. Please check your email for additional information regarding your inquiry. Thanks again.

  8. Hi,
    My Dad has a t4 colon tumor ; they cant do surgery for another
    8 weeks do to scheduling conflicts.

    He has gone thru chemo and radiation – I want to keep cancer at bay and even shrink it more – is there a diet that will help
    with this?

    Thank you,

    • Hi Joe – I will send you a personal email with an attachment that I would recommend reading. The chapter is from my new book, Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism.

  9. julianna

    Hi
    Very interesting article. Iam a breastcancer survivor (15 years)only used surgery, no chemo or radiation due to drastic side effects and observing many deaths of family and friends due to same.
    I have been using an herbal approach, and am concerned that alcohol in herbal medicine is not helpful in tx. My diet is healthy and I include alot of anti cancer herbs and vegetables,infusions etc. and will not change those. I think the keto diet may help me deal with recurrances. Have been told to see you but am in the east, cannot afford to come west. In particular I think burdock and medicinal mushrooms help, but it makes sense that eliminating many carbs and all sugar will help too. Thanks.
    Julia

  10. Hello,
    My mum has a nasal mucosal melanoma. It’s internal in her nose and is currently obstructing her left side nostril. I have kept her on the ketogenic diet for more than a year now. I would really appreciate any input on that and in particular any suggestions/treatments, something topical, directly on the skin which would help to shrink the tumor so she can start breading again from it. That would give her the psychological boost so badly needed to keep going on.
    Kind regards
    Tom

    • Donnie

      Hi Tom – Helpful formulas for inflammation of the nasal mucosal would include a netipot nasal douche of salt water, collodial silver, aloe vera juice or gel, and golden seal. I would also customize a nasal spray and apply aromatic shea butter a topical salve the Mederi Centre for Natural Healing compounds. You can Mederi at 541.488.3133 for more information. Thanks for reading!

  11. Baidehi

    Hi Donnie,
    My Mom has been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer.
    She is not willing to take any chemotherapy/radiation. I am Looking for a alternative treatment , I am quiet convinced with the ketogenic diet. Can you please advise me with a diet regime my mom can follow to fight cancer?
    Would really appreciate your help.
    Regards,
    Baidehi

    • Hi Baidehi – Please check your email. I have some additional information from my book that I’d like to share with you.

  12. Glad I found your blog! I was trying to research diet for late stage primary liver cancer and stumbled upon your blog. I am hoping for some direction and help for my father.

  13. debora passetti

    Any diet suggestions would be appreciated. Diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer with Mets to liver. Taking arimadex. 4 normal pet scans.

  14. mrsaofoz@hotmail.com

    I start chemo next week, but I want to also implement a ketogenic diet with it, I have a small cell carcinoma, on the esophagus, 3 cm…chemo is supposed to work quite well with this I am told, but diet is my other thing. any suggestions

    • Please take a look at my most recent blog post “The ETMS Approach to a Healthy Diet.” It should give you some good suggestions.

  15. Hi my dad was diagnosed with throat cancer a year ago and went through radiotherepy and after results came through negative but he was diagnosed with toungue cancer 3 days ago and obviously cannot have radiotherepy again,he is only 5 stone and is losing weight,we lost our mother 4 years ago to cancer and dont want to lose him would you recommend the ketogenic diet?

    • Donnie

      Hi Emma – I am not a proponent of a ketogenic diet, and do support eliminating refined carbohydrates, simple sugars, processed and GMO foods. Eating wholesome carbohydrates including fresh fruits & vegetables, and whole grains provide the body with protection against cancer & other disease. I advise assessing your fathers diet and lifestyle and making modifications that include a balanced diet filled with a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds and a moderate amount of high quality protein and fats. Specific foods in these categories can be individualized depending on taste and preference, availability, season, & and philosophy. The following link on the ETMS approach to a healthy diet will be helpful. http://www.donnieyance.com/etms-approach-healthy-diet/

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