Is Keto an Effective Cancer Fighting Diet?

“Is Keto an Effective
Cancer-Fighting Diet?” Blood sugar, also known
as blood glucose, is the universal go-to fuel for
the cells throughout our bodies. Our brain burns through a
quarter pound of sugar a day, it’s preferred metabolic fuel. Our body can break down proteins
and make glucose from scratch, but most comes from our diet in
the form of sugars and starches. If we stop eating carbohydrates,
or stop eating altogether, most of our cells switch
over to burning fat, but fat has difficulty getting
through the blood-brain barrier. But our brain has this constant
massive need for fuel, one organ accounting for up
to half of our energy needs. Without it, the lights
go out…permanently. To make that much
sugar from scratch, our body would
need to break down about a half pound
of protein a day. That means we’d cannibalize ourselves
to death within two weeks, but people can fast for months. The answer to the puzzle
was discovered in 1967. Harvard researchers
famously stuck catheters into the brains of obese
subjects who had been fasting for over a month and
discovered that ketones had replaced glucose as the
preferred fuel for the brain. Your liver can turn
fat into ketones, which can then breach
the blood-brain barrier and sustain your brain if you’re
not getting enough carbohydrates. Switching fuels has such
an effect on brain activity that it has been used to
treat epilepsy since antiquity. The prescription of
fasting for the treatment of epileptic seizures
dates back to Hippocrates. In the Bible, Jesus
seems to have concurred. To this day it’s
unclear why switching from blood sugar to ketones
as a primary fuel source has such a dampening effect
on brain overactivity. How long can you fast though? To prolong the fasting therapy,
in 1921 a distinguished physician scientist at the Mayo
Clinic suggested trying what he called a “ketogenic diet,” a high-fat diet designed to be
so deficient in carbohydrates it could effectively
mimic the fasting state. “Remarkable improvement”
was noted the first time it was put to the test—efficacy
that was later confirmed in randomized, controlled, trials. Ketogenic diets started to
fall out of favor in 1938 with the discovery of
the anti-seizure drug which would become known as Dilantin, but ketogenic diets are still in use today as a third- or fourth-line treatment for drug-refractory epilepsy in children. Oddly, the success of ketogenic
diets against pediatric epilepsy seems to get conflated
by “keto diet” proponents into suggesting a ketogenic
diet is beneficial for everyone. But you know what else sometimes
works for intractable epilepsy? Brain surgery. But I don’t hear people
at the gym clamoring to get their skulls sawed open. Since when do medical therapies translate into healthy lifestyle choices? Scrambling brain activity
with electroshock therapy can be helpful in some
cases of major depression. So what…pass the electrodes? Ketogenic diets are
also being tested to see if they can slow the growth
of certain brain tumors. Even if it works, you know what else can help slow cancer growth? Chemotherapy. So why go keto when you
can just go chemo? Promoters of ketogenic diets for cancer, paid for by so-called
“ketone technology” companies that will send you salted
caramel bone broth powder for a hundred bucks a pound. Or companies that
market ketogenic meals report “extraordinary” anecdotal
responses in some cancer patients, but more concrete
evidence is simply lacking. Even the theoretical underpinnings
may be questionable. You know, a common refrain
is that “cancer feeds on sugar.” But all cells feed on sugar. Advocating ketogenic diets for cancer
is like saying Hitler breathed air— so let’s boycott oxygen. Cancer can feed on ketones too. Ketones have been found to
fuel human breast cancer growth and drive metastases in
an experimental model, more than doubling tumor growth. Some have even speculated
that may be why breast cancer often metastasizes to the liver, the main site of ketone production. If you drip ketones
on breast cancer cells in a petri dish directly, the
genes that get turned on and off make for a much
more aggressive cancer, associated with a significantly lower five-year survival in
breast cancer patients. Researchers are even considering
designing ketone-blocking drugs to prevent further cancer growth
by halting ketone production. And think about what eating a
ketogenic diet might entail. High animal fat intake may
increase the mortality risk among breast cancer survivors
and potentially play a role in its development in the first
place through oxidative stress, hormone disruption, or inflammation. Men, too. A strong association has been found between saturated fat intake
and prostate cancer progression. Those in the top
third of consumption of these kinds of
fat-rich animal foods appeared to triple their risk
of dying from prostate cancer. Not necessarily fat in general—
no difference in breast cancer death rates based
on total fat intake— but saturated fat intake
may negatively impact breast cancer survival,
a 50 percent increased risk of dying from breast cancer. There’s a reason the official
American Cancer Society and American Society of Clinical Oncology
Breast Cancer Survivorship Care Guidelines recommend a dietary pattern
for breast cancer patients that’s essentially the
opposite of a ketogenic diet: “high in vegetables, fruits,
whole grains, and legumes, meaning beans, split peas,
chickpeas and lentils, and low in saturated fats.” So far, not a single
clinical study has shown a measurable benefit
from a ketogenic diet for any human cancer. There are currently at least
a dozen trials underway, however, and the hope is that at least
some cancer types will respond. Still, even then that
wouldn’t serve as a basis for recommending ketogenic diets
for the general population any more than recommending
everyone go out and get radiation, surgery, and chemo for kicks.


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