Medical experts are now looking into the keto diet for cancer prevention and treatment. Whether or not keto provides real benefits is a rather complicated question to answer.
Firstly, cancer does not refer to a single disease, as it’s a collection of diseases. While the keto diet may be helpful for one type of cancer, it may be harmful to another.
Also, when looking into the keto diet for cancer, it’s worth considering how the diet will work alongside other treatments, such as chemotherapy.
In this article, let’s look at how keto might work to prevent or help treat cancer.
Related reading: 5 Amazing Health Benefits of Keto Diet
Role of Blood Sugar in Cancer
Most cancer therapies work by targeting the biological differences between normal cells and cancer cells. Most cancer cells share a common trait – they feed off glucose to grow and multiply.
Some authorities say that all cells need glucose so it does not cause cancer nor does it cause cancer cells to grow. But, some estimates suggest cancer cells use 50-100x more glucose than normal cells so that says something.
One of the benefits of the keto diet is its ability to lower blood sugar levels, making it suitable for those with diabetes. When you follow the diet, some of your body’s standard metabolic processes will change, causing your blood sugar level to go down. Because of this, the keto diet may “starve” the cancer cells of its fuel.
The effect of “starvation” on cancer cells will cause them to grow more slowly, decrease in size, and eventually die. Based on this theory, it seems possible that the keto diet may help to minimize the progression of cancer cells since it can cause a rapid decrease in blood sugar levels.
Keto Diet for Cancer Prevention
Aside from helping kill cancer cells, the keto diet may also help in reducing one’s risk of some cancer diseases.
Cancer starts when a series of mutations take place in a normal cell. Inherited genes may also play a part, although most mutations are often a result of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is when free radicals outnumber antioxidants.
Free radicals refer to unstable molecules produced by cancer-causing agents. Therfore a diet rich in antioxidant foods may help to “neutralize” free radicals.
Antioxidants help keep them in check and prevent imbalance between the free radicals and antioxidants. One study found that ketone body B-hydroxybutyrate may help to suppress oxidative stress.
When it comes to the keto diet for cancer prevention, the ketone bodies offer two potentially positive actions. Firstly, they minimize the production of free radicals. Secondly, they boost the body’s antioxidant capacity.
It can be helpful for those living with cancer since cancer cells develop new mutations that could make chemotherapy and other treatment ineffective.
Still, there are concerns about whether these benefits are ineffective since the keto diet limits the consumption of fruits and vegetables, which also have positive effects on cancer.
Related reading: What Are the Best Low Carb Vegetables?
Keto Diet for Cancer Prevention or Treatment
Research into the keto diet for cancer prevention or treatment is still in its early stage. Most are animal studies, with only a few human studies to date.
Those studies done on animals show that the ketogenic diet may reduce tumor growth and improve survival rates. One study uses mice with metastatic cancer. Compared to mice with a standard diet, the one which follows the keto diet resulted in a significant decrease in tumor growth.
Overall, animal studies show that the keto diet may have anti-cancer effects and can be effective for most cancers. A 2017 review of existing studies found that 72% of these studies show a keto diet may have an anti-tumor effect on animals with cancer. None of the studies show that a tumor has worsened due to the keto diet.
However, other studies have shown that different cancer types and their subtypes could respond differently to keto. For instance, the diet may have an anti-cancer effect on some cancer cells but could trigger cancer in BRAF-positive melanoma.
A mouse study on the keto diet showed that the BRAF V600E-positive melanoma had grown significantly. This study raises concern that the ketogenic diet may have different effects not just on different cancer types, but also trigger molecular changes that could encourage tumor growth.
Most human studies on the keto diet for cancer have been small. Many of these studies focus primarily on safety.
The strongest evidence involves glioblastoma, a common and aggressive type of brain cancer. There’s also evidence of a potential keto benefit in other forms of cancer, such as prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, and pancreatic cancer.
While the studies done on animals are helpful, results in human studies may be different. A study on mice discussed earlier showed significant growth of BRAF-positive melanoma while on a keto diet. But in a small trial involving a few humans with BRAF-positive melanomas, one has shown positive effects from keto.
In 2018, a study on the keto diet’s effects on women with uterine or ovarian cancer focused on safety. Yet, the result is in encouraging in many ways. The keto diet did not show any negative impact on the quality of life of the women. Instead, it helped improve their physical function, decrease food cravings, and reduce fatigue.
So, is the keto diet for cancer effective? There are many ways that the keto diet may have played a role in the prevention or treatment of cancer. However, how these theories play out in people with cancer is uncertain.
Keep in mind that no cancer group recommends following the keto diet as a cure or prevention for cancer, despite the promising research above. While keto may come with its benefits, it also comes with risks for some cancer patients.
For instance, the diet requires eating a large amount of meat, which is not suitable for most cancer patients since they may not be able to digest enough meat. Cancer patients who found promising results on keto may be better off following a plant-based keto diet.
It may be best to talk to a functional medicine doctor or naturopath about the effects of the keto diet on cancer. Perhaps, it may work best if used in addition to conventional cancer treatments. Regardless, always follow the advice of your oncologist.