The ketogenic diet is popular among those aiming to lose weight or increase their physical fitness. New research shows that it may be a useful addition to the treatment of certain cancers.

By now, you may be familiar with the ketogenic diet for weight loss, improving fitness or controlling blood glucose levels. If you aren’t, it is a very low-carb, high-fat and moderate-protein diet that switches the body’s metabolism over to ketones as an energy source instead of glucose. Ketones are breakdown products of fats which leads to the state of ketosis. But what about the diet as a cancer treatment or prevention strategy? Cancer is one of the most feared diseases in the modern world, so effective, nontoxic interventions are definitely welcome. Now, a new study published on August 13 reveals that the ketogenic diet may stop tumors from growing. Although it is only preclinical research, the results are promising.

The Ketogenic Diet In Action

In this new study, researchers restricted blood glucose levels in mice with lung cancer. They achieved this by putting the mice on a ketogenic diet and a drug that prevents glucose from being reabsorbed. Both treatments on their own prevented the tumors from growing more, but they didn’t shrink them. Additionally, as different cancers originate from different cell types, their response to sugar restriction varied. The tumors studied were squamous cell cancers (SCCs), from a flat type of cell found in many areas of the body. These are far more dependent on sugar for energy than other cancer cell types such as adenocarcinomas.

What About Humans?

The researchers also analyzed blood glucose levels in 192 patients with esophageal or lung SCC and 120 patients with lung adenocarcinoma. Their samples were categorized as being either under or over 120mg/dL, which is a measure for diabetes. There was only a relationship between higher blood glucose and lower survival rates among SCC patients. No link was found with survival in those with adenocarcinomas.

Clinical trials on ketogenic diets as a complementary cancer treatment are needed, but there are a few published case reports. One article from 1995 describes two cases of childhood brain tumors where both patients were put on a 60 percent medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) version. Use of MCTs, which are most commonly from coconut oil, makes switching to ketones as a fuel source easier. Within one week, there was a 21.8 percent reduction in glucose usage in both children. One of the patients experienced significant improvements in her mood and learning ability and continued the diet for another year without tumor growth.

A more recent case report on a 65-year-old woman documents another successful use of the ketogenic diet. This patient suffered from glioblastoma multiforme, a notoriously difficult to treat form of brain cancer. Before and during standard treatment, she followed a 4:1 (fat: protein + carbohydrates) ketogenic diet restricted to 600 kcal/day. She later switched to a calorie-restricted, non-ketogenic diet, but her ketone levels remained similar. The results were astounding. After two months of restricting calories and carbs, no brain tumor tissue could be found on either MRI or PET scanning. Survival rates of this cancer type are very low with standard treatment alone and are even worse in adults. Sadly, it reappeared 10 weeks after she quit the strict diet. These successes are possible because brain tumor cells cannot use ketones for energy, unlike normal cells.

How Can I Start A Ketogenic Diet?

As it is a very strict diet, we first advise you to seek professional help when going keto. There are several types of the ketogenic diet, with the standard version involving the 4:1 ratio of fat to protein and carbohydrates. Others are less strict and employ methods such as intermittent fasting or MCT oil to maintain ketosis. Whichever way is best for you, don’t fall into the trap of relying on bacon and eggs. There are hundreds of recipes you and your healthcare team can incorporate into your meal plan – even breads and desserts! Take a look at this recipe for macadamia butter cups.

To wrap up, the ketogenic diet may be a valuable addition to cancer treatment or prevention. It offers new hope for patients with brain or squamous cell cancers and provides empowerment through being largely in your hands to implement. While clinical trials are still underway, things are looking up. 

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