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The Keto Diet and Cancer: What’s the Connection?

By Fitoru | 26 June 2018
guy jamming vegetables down a blender

Happily, the rate of new cancer diagnoses has dropped sharply in the last 30 years. And while that’s good news for thousands of Americans, many others are still suffering from this chronic illness. According to a recent Reuters article, the rates of 12 different obesity-related cancers skyrocketed between 2005 and 2014.

While we still don’t have a cure for cancer, researchers are devising effective new treatments for this disease every day. A diet that’s been growing in popularity in recent years, keto has the dual benefit of helping treat obesity and offering a new hope for cancer patients.

How a Ketogenic Diet Works

Popularized in the 1920s, the ketogenic diet has gained renewed interest in the last few years. Like many modern eating plans, keto operates on the principle that carbohydrates, not fats, are the real enemy. However, unlike other diets, keto involves replacing carbohydrates with a large amount of healthy fats and a moderate amount of healthy proteins. By depriving the body of carbs—which it uses to make glucose—keto forces the body into a metabolic state. The goal is to achieve and maintain a fasting state called ketosis, in which the body breaks down stored fats and produces ketones.

As the need for energy increases, and the body is unable to meet that need with carbohydrates, it starts producing more ketones. At first, practitioners may struggle with the restraints of a keto diet. However, over time, the body grows accustomed to burning fat instead of sugars. This is known as becoming keto-adaptive. You can use a keto calculator to determine the right amount of fats, proteins, and carbs to eat for your specific size and body type.

Looking at the Research

While a ketogenic diet can be valuable for anyone looking to burn fat and lose weight, the eating plan may offer unique benefits for cancer patients. Research shows that starving cancer cells of sugar in the form of the nutrient glucose can actually cause them to die. By following a keto diet and reducing carbohydrates, it may be possible to lower glucose levels enough that cancer cells can’t get the fuel they need to replicate and grow.

According to a study from the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics, colon cancer cells use a gene called GLUT1 to enhance their capacity for absorbing glucose. When the research team used a drug to block glucose metabolism in mice, it was able to halt cancer growth without negative side effects.

Similarly, a case study published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism revealed that following a ketogenic diet could help treat brain tumors. After a 65-year-old female brain cancer patient underwent tumor resection, she implemented a 4 to 1 ratio diet of fats to carbs. After two months, her brain tumor tissue was undetectable. It’s important to note that the patient supplemented her 600-calorie-a-day diet with vitamins and minerals and continued taking conventional cancer treatments during the length of the study.

While more research is needed to determine the effect of keto on tumors, the diet offers renewed hope for cancer patients.

What to Eat on a Ketogenic Diet

Following a ketogenic diet requires participants to avoid most carbohydrates, replacing them with healthy fats and proteins. Dieters can still consume carbs in the form of non-starchy vegetables. Additionally, people on a keto diet should consume plenty of good fats, including olive oil, and a moderate amount of fresh proteins, such as chicken and fish. Finally, it’s important to avoid glucose and high fructose corn syrup, along with trans fats.

Keto Foods to Eat and Avoid

Although the keto diet is about restricting carbohydrates and replacing them with healthy fats, there is some flexibility in the foods you consume. Here are some of the top keto foods to eat, foods to consume in moderation, and foods to avoid.

Foods to Eat Regularly
  • Meats, including beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and fish
  • Eggs
  • Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, lettuce, and cabbage.
  • Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, zucchini, cucumber, peppers, and avocado
  • Full-fat dairy, including butter, yogurt, and cheeses
  • Nuts, including almonds and walnuts
  • Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds
Foods to Eat in Moderation
  • Root vegetables, including sweet potatoes, yams, turnips, and parsnips
  • Fruits
  • Alcohol, including wine, whiskey, and vodka
  • Dark chocolate
Foods to Avoid
  • Sugar
  • Soft drinks, sports drinks, and juices
  • Pastries, cookies, cakes, and candy
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Ice cream
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes
  • Processed oils and margarine
  • Beer

While keto can be an effective way of losing weight, not everyone is a good candidate for this diet. For this reason, individuals should only undertake a ketogenic diet under the supervision of a doctor or nutritionist. Additionally, certain cancer patients should not follow a keto diet. Talk to your doctor to see if a ketogenic diet could be beneficial in your particular case.

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