September 13, 2020

Ketogenic Diet Cancer

The Untold Relationship Between The Ketogenic Diet And Cancer


There is an untold relationship between the ketogenic diet and cancer. The ketogenic diet offers a myriad of health benefits that affect most organ systems, especially the heart, liver, and brain.

The Major Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet

As this diet gains more traction, many people start spreading misinformation about some of its benefits for financial profit.

In this article, however, we will decipher the relationship between cancer and the ketogenic diet according to credible scientific sources and clinical studies.

Before we start analyzing research, let’s define the keto diet and cancer first:

What is the ketogenic diet?

The ketogenic, or keto diet, is a pattern of eating that focuses on modifying the ratio of the macronutrients you consume to reduce carb intake and increase fat in your diet.

By lowing sugar intake to 5-10% of the total caloric intake, the liver activates alternative metabolic pathways that use fatty acids to produce ketone bodies, which are then used as a primary source of fuel in the cell.

This entire system is designed to supply the body with energy during starvation periods, which our ancestors had to deal with quite frequently.

Consequently, the keto diet leads to substantial weight loss, the promotion of cardiovascular health, and the regulation of blood sugar levels.

To learn more about the ketogenic diet’s mechanisms of action, check out this blog post The Ketogenic Diet & Weight Loss: Part 1.

What is cancer?

Cancer is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of diseases that affect different organ systems with one thing in common: uncontrolled replication of the cells at an abnormally fast rate.

In general, every cell goes through strict checkpoints that are put in place to prevent abnormal cells from replicating. The number of mechanisms and proteins involved in this process is staggering, which only emphasizes the importance of maintaining DNA integrity and preventing the cell from going haywire.

Unfortunately, this system is not perfect, and sometimes, cells undergo genetic mutations and become cancerous.

Depending on the genetic mutation, the affected organ, and the host’s defenses, the rate and aggressiveness at which cancer grows will vary.

What are the causes of cancer?

Researchers managed to identify numerous genetic and environmental factors that increase the risk of cancer, including –and not exclusive to– the following:

  • Carcinogenic chemicals –substances that alter the replication of DNA.
  • Chronic exposure to radiation.
  • Xenobiotics.
  • Non-organic food.
  • Various toxins.
  • Oncoviruses (e.g., Human Papilloma Virus, Hepatitis B).
  • Genetics (e.g., BRCA gene mutations).

The one thing in common between these factors is the alteration of DNA integrity, which precipitates cellular growth while bypassing all biological checkpoints.

The body’s response to cancer

The body reacts to cancer differently depending on the stage of the tumor.

During the first stages, when the tumor size is small, and invasion of other tissues hasn’t occurred yet, the immune system (e.g., Natural Killers, cytotoxic T cell) will directly destroy the cancerous cells.

If cancer survives these attacks and grows in size that requires new blood vessels to supply the cells with oxygen and nutrients (a process known as angiogenesis), the body will implement other strategies in an attempt to slow down the growth of the tumor.

The connection between the keto diet and cancer

There are three primary ways that the ketogenic diet might help patients with cancer:

1. The restriction of glucose

The primary concept of the ketogenic diet is to restrict glucose intake, which may benefit several types of cancer.

In a 2017 study, Kim and colleagues found that squamous cell carcinoma (a very common type of cancer) is very reliant on glucose for growth and metastasis (i.e., spread to other tissues).

To further emphasize the role of glucose in cancer, researchers collected blood samples from 192 patients with squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and 120 samples from patients with lung adenocarcinoma.

Once in the lab, they measured blood glucose concentration of the samples to see whether it’s above 120 mg/dL.

Kim and colleagues concluded that there is a strong correlation between high blood glucose levels and poor outcome of patients with squamous cell carcinoma.

Interestingly, they did not find this correlation in lung adenocarcinoma, which is a valuable distinction that scientists can use to develop new therapeutic approaches to SCC.

These findings suggest that low-carb diets (e.g., the keto diet) may be effective in improving the prognosis of patients with SCC and other types of cancer.

In fact, a 2014 study already established the keto diet as an adjuvant therapy to chemotherapy and radiation.

2. The induction of cancer cell death

While the ketogenic diet reduces inflammation and free radicals throughout the body, researchers believe that it selectively targets cancer cells to induce oxidative stress-related apoptosis (a.k.a., programmed cellular death).

Note that oxidative stress is detrimental to healthy tissues, but it’s exactly the type of mechanism that destroys infected (e.g., viral infections) and cancerous cells.

If researchers managed to develop a pharmacological drug that mimics the action of the keto diet in cancerous cells, it could be a breakthrough in the field of oncology.

3. The inhibition of angiogenesis

According to doctor William Li, the author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, the keto diet interferes with cancer growth in a variety of ways.

He then added that this diet inhibits the production of vascular endothelium growth factor (VEGF), which is a vital compound for angiogenesis and cancer growth.

With the being said, the keto diet is not standard care, and you should consult with your primary care doctor before making dietary changes, especially when excluding a major macronutrient.

Takeaway message

The ketogenic diet is a fantastic eating pattern that offers numerous health benefits, including some promising evidence of its effects on cancer.

Hopefully, we managed to simplify the relationship between the keto diet and cancer.  If you have anything that you want to add, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below.

About the author 

Steven Rinker

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