The ketogenic diet has been touted for its weight loss benefits and its anti-inflammatory powers, but some go even further, pointing to keto as the ideal diet for fighting cancer – and we’ve got the inside scoop.
While the possibility of keto being a preventative treatment for cancer has yet to be conclusively proven in clinical trials, its benefits have convinced many experts, including Audrey Christie, MSN, RN, CCMA, Holistic Wellness Practitioner.
“The funny thing about clinical evidence is that it takes funding, which anti-cancer and cancer-killing drug companies have a ton of," she says. "Us functional medicine practitioners and hippies don't have funding to pay for double-blind studies in those fancy 3rd party labs.”
But, she notes, anecdotally, she has seen it work – and she’s not the only one: a handful of studies have shown promising links between nutrition and cancer including a 2018 study in Oncolog-Hematolog and a 2016 study in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation, and books from experts like Miriam Kalamian, author of “Keto for Cancer” and Thomas Seyfried, author of "Cancer as a Metabolic Disease" also point to promising results of this protocol.
"It's an alternative therapy that has not undergone rigorous trials," says Beth Zupec-Kania, RDN, CD. "But when you look at the trials that have been done with chemo and cancer, the results actually aren't that great. There's a certain percentage that do well; it's a small percent. But since it's the only thing available, it has become the standard of care."
Unlike chemo, the downsides of the ketogenic diet are minimal, and the possible upsides are extremely promising. Here are three reasons why the keto diet may be the next big thing for cancer treatment.
1. It’s anti-inflammatory, and cancer is an inflammatory disease.
Some of the biggest proven benefits of the keto diet are linked to general inflammation, a problem stemming in part from increased stress and poor diet that plagues many living in America today.
One 2015 study from the National Institutes of Health linked the ketogenic diet to the release of the ketone beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), which can block the NLRP3 inflammasome, an immune system receptor that’s linked to inflammation.
“In summary, by encouraging ketosis, we can discourage the number of NLRP3 flares in the body,” explains Dr. Laurie Steelsmith, author of Growing Younger Every Day: The Three Essentials Steps for Creating Youthful Hormone Balance At Any Age.
She notes that evidence in favor of keto’s anti-inflammatory benefits only continues to grow. It’s thus no surprise that the keto diet might be beneficial for cancer, seeing as cancer is, in fact, an inflammatory disease.
The National Cancer Institute writes that chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer, and several academic papers, including a 2002 article in the journal Nature delve into this connection.
To stave off cancer, then, whether before or after diagnosis, an anti-inflammatory protocol like the ketogenic diet is key.
Zupec-Kania notes that while she hasn’t had the opportunity to work with people attempting to use healthy diets such as the keto diet to prevent illness, she has seen the healing effects of keto on patients who have already been diagnosed with cancer first-hand.
“The main thing that we report, at least initially is that they just have much more energy,” she says. She also shares that she has worked with several patients who have seen other benefits to transitioning to keto, including a woman with stage-four metastatic liver cancer who has already undergone two trials of chemotherapy.
“She’s elderly, and she’s doing beautifully,” says Zupec-Kania. “I’ve been working with her for several months now, and one would think that if the cancer were getting worse, she wouldn't be doing so well.”
“Probably the most outstanding case that is documented is a woman who contacted me, she has a rare breast cancer, and found out that chemo for this type of cancer is not that beneficial," Zupec-Kania continues. "She asked the doctor to give her some time doing thyrotherapy, which is where you freeze the tumors, and then keto diet, which is where I came in. She's six, seven years out.”
When practiced properly, the keto diet's anti-inflammatory benefits may be promising, then, in both preventing and accompanying diagnosed patients on their journey to restored health.
2. The ketogenic diet works best with whole foods, and whole foods help fight cancer.
Most experts agree that some of the “keto” recipes that people post on the Internet are far from the ideal ketogenic diet.
“I've seen some really bad ketogenic diets that I don't think are anti-inflammatory,” says Zupec-Kania. “I think the poor aspect of their diet probably cancels out the potential benefits of ketosis.”
"I try to say to people, do you have any idea how much medicine you're putting into your body every day? We call it food, but it's medicine."
In some cases, she explains, this medicine is good, as in the case of vitamin-rich keto-friendly grass-fed animal fats, fruits, and vegetables. In some cases, however, it's like succumbing to the adverse side effects of a drug: a recent study found that the consumption of ultra-processed foods led to a 12 percent increase in risk of developing cancer.
“I always cringe when people jump into the keto diet and stop eating fruits and veggies and starting feasting on mountains of cheese and bacon,” says Christie. “Veggies are critical to health, well being, muscle building and a whole host of things.”
A truly well-designed ketogenic diet is mainly made up of healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, and smaller quantities of healthy proteins – and our experts also note that prebiotics and probiotics are an essential part of these diets too. When looked at as a whole, then, the keto diet becomes a superfood diet made of nature’s medicine, including cancer-fighting anti-oxidants and polyphenols.
It’s no wonder a healthful, well-designed ketogenic diet is linked to health benefits like the prevention of cancer.
3. Keto calls for intermittent fasting, and intermittent fasting is the ideal anti-inflammatory protocol.
While not all iterations of the keto diet require intermittent fasting, the two often go hand-in-hand, and for good reason: intermittent fasting may be one of the best anti-inflammatory practices of all, thus making it ideal for treating or preventing cancer.
To understand just why intermittent fasting is so good for gut health, Zupec-Kania compares it to mediation.
“Everyone stresses the concept of why meditation is good for our mental health,” says Zupec-Kania. “That's been well published and recommended by standard doctors everywhere. So I like to use that for a metaphor with what goes on in your gut - it's like meditation for your gut. It rests, it rejuvenates, and it renews. And it's so powerful that it can turn back the clock on even aging.”
Studies have linked intermittent fasting to health benefits like cell repair, and one 2013 study in Current Opinion in Oncology even showed a promising link between fasting and reduced incidence of carcinogenesis and tumor growth.
“Anything in your gut triggers inflammation," says Zupec-Kania. Reducing that inflammation through intermittent fasting, especially in tandem with a well-designed ketogenic diet, may be one of the best ways to keep your body healthy and stave off the development of cancer.
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