Low-Carb Diets & Cancer - backed by research

Low-Carb Diets & Cancer - backed by research

In December 2019, cancer came out to be the second cause of death according to a major global study done by The Global Burden of Disease just after cardiovascular diseases. And still, there is no cure for it. There are ways of preventing it from spreading when caught in its early stages, otherwise, it’s irreversible.

Cancer is usually treated with a combination of treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. However, for years many different diet strategies have been studied to use as an extra treatment for cancer to help improve the effects of the main treatment. None of them has shown to be particularly effective.

Nevertheless, some early research suggests that a very low-carb diet, such as the ketogenic diet, may help reduce cancer spread.

The ketogenic diet

The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat diet. In this diet, the intake of carbs is significantly reduced and replaced with fat and protein. This change leads to a metabolic state called ketosis. Once your body is adjusted to this diet, its primary energy is fat instead of carbohydrates. This will cause a substantial increase in the levels of compounds called ketones in your blood. Cutting out carbs will force your body to burn the fat you’ve already stored. This process is called ketosis and usually begins 3 to 4 days after eliminating carbs from your diet.

The usual ratio on a keto diet is: 70% of the total calories should be consumed in the form of fat, 20% of the total calories should be consumed in the form of protein, and only 10% of the total calories should be consumed in the form of carbs.

Fasting and Intermittent fasting

Another way to get to the ketosis state is by fasting. The ketogenic diet mimics the fasting state, wherein the body responds to the lack of glucose by producing ketones for energy. Actually, fasting has been used from remote times as an effective treatment for many medical ailments.

Since fasting can produce ketosis, intermittent fasting may be a way to obtain the benefits of ketosis as well. Restricting calories to less than 1000 kcal per day intermittently has also shown some potential benefits for fighting cancer. However, this needs to be supervised by a dietitian specialized in oncology patients.

Low-carb diet and cancer

Following a low-carb diet such as the keto diet can be beneficial when fighting cancer. 

Why? Because the ketogenic diet lowers blood sugar, and almost all cancer cells share one common trait; they feed off carbs of blood sugar in order to grow and multiply.

By following a ketogenic diet, some of the standard metabolic processes are altered, and your blood sugar levels go way down since the carb intake is quite low. So, basically, what this process does is to “starve” the cancer cells of fuel. In the long term, this “starvation effect” will make the cancer cells grow more slowly, decrease in size, or even die.

Ketogenic diets starve tumors by providing the fat and protein that otherwise could not be used by glucose-dependent tumor cells.

Another benefit of the ketogenic diet when battling cancer is lowered insulin. This hormone is anabolic, which means that it makes cells grow when it’s present, including cancerous cells. Therefore, if we have lower insulin levels, tumor growth may slow down. Also, increasing ketones helps since cancer cells can’t use them as fuel.

Although more research is needed, combining a ketogenic diet with standard chemotherapeutic and radiotherapeutic options may improve tumor response.

However, while there’s the potential that the keto diet could help some types of cancers, it can also harm others. Depending on your type of cancer or cancer treatment, your body may not be able to break down the proteins and fats, which can lead to other digestive problems.

This is why it’s important when battling cancer, to talk to your doctor or a dietitian before doing any changes in your diet. Different diet plans work for different people and your doctor or dietitian can help you determine if a diet will help your reach your goals or not.

What’s more, during each stage of the treatment and cancer, your nutrition goals should be adjusted. Your dietitian can help you manage your diet to minimize side effects, cope with any new food sensitivities and keep you feeling your best. It’s also important to keep in mind that the keto diet may be one of the options available to you however, it’s not, by any means, a replacement for traditional cancer therapy it’s just an extra.

Our recommendation

When it comes to a medical condition, we will always preach that you have to work hand in hand with your doctor. When fighting a disease like cancer, it’s best to change, adjust, or try new diets and lifestyle changes when your oncologist recommends it. Some changes may affect negatively your treatment while others can work perfectly well with it.

Also, we want to point out that, adopting a ketogenic diet or a low-carb diet is not a substitute for your cancer treatment (whichever it is), it works as a complement to help the treatment and ultimately to help your body recover from the disease.


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