Does the Keto Diet Fight Cancer?
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The keto diet, or ketogenic diet, is a very high fat, very low carb, moderate protein method of eating. In fitness circles it is often viewed as a magic fat loss diet. In the medical realm, the ketogenic diet has been studied and used to treat diabetes and epilepsy.
Recently the keto diet has been touted as a possible method of treating cancer. We will explore this in detail shortly.
Related: Is the Keto Diet Right for You?
Many in the bodybuilding and body transformation communities are unaware of the long history behind the keto diet. As an official eating lifestyle, the ketogenic diet’s history goes back as far as the 1920s.
In 1921, diabetes and diet research was extensively reviewed by Rollin Woodyatt. He found that when healthy individuals consumed a very low carbohydrate, high fat diet, their livers produced three ketone bodies – acetoacetate, acetone, and β-hydroxybutyrate. The Mayo Clinic’s Russel Wilder explored this finding further.
It was Wilder that defined this style of eating, coining it the ketogenic diet. He later went on to perform a trial on epileptic patients, treating them successfully with a very low carbohydrate, very high fat diet. 
Mynie Peterman, a colleague of Russel Wilder, proceded to define specific guidelines for ketogenic diet administration.
- One gram of protein per kilogram body weight (for children)
- 10 to 15 grams of carbohydrates daily
- All other calories from fats
Peterman was able to document many positives related to ketogenic diet administration:
- Heightened alertness
- Better sleep
- Behavior improvements
The ketogenic diet appeared to be very effective at treating epilepsy in younger individuals. In 1925, Mynie Peterman outlined some extremely impressive results. Out of a pool of 37 patients, 95% experienced an improvement in seizure control, while 60% were cured of their seizures.
In the 1930s the tie between seizure control and the ketogenic diet was explored in greater detail. Clifford Barborka, also from the Mayo Clinic, explored the impact of this eating lifestyle on 100 teens and adults currently suffering from epilepsy. The findings: 56% experienced an improvement, and 12% were cured of their seizures. 
The Rebirth of the Modern Ketogenic Diet
In 1994, NBC’s Dateline TV show brought the ketogenic diet to the national stage. Dateline reported the story of 2 year old Charlie Abrahams. Charlie suffered from epilepsy, and no modern treatments were able to assist with relief. All mainstream and alternative medical options failed this young boy, until he tried the ketogenic diet.
Using the keto diet, young Charlie Abrahams experienced a dramatic improvement in the severity of his epilepsy.
This was the golden era of ketogenic diet research. Research on this eating lifestyle exploded during the mid to late 90s.
Interestingly enough, there was also a movie made about the keto diet. In 1997, Charlie Abrahams’ father Jim (a movie producer), unveiled a feature film called First Do No Harm starring Merly Streep. The story was about a young epileptic child whose life was changed through administration of the ketogenic diet.
By 2007, the ketogenic diet as a medical treatment had spread to 45 countries and 75 clinics. It was during this time that exploration began on the keto diet’s impact on other illnesses and maladies.
The Ketogenic Diet and Cancer
Cancerous cells struggle to utilize ketone bodies as a form of energy. Because of this, there is hope that the ketogenic diet, and the resulting state of ketosis, might be a viable method of slowing cancer cell growth and treating this medical epidemic. 
A 2013 review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that research exploring the use of the ketogenic diet as a treatment for cancer is warranted. 
“In the 1980s, seminal animal studies by Tisdale and colleagues62, 63 demonstrated that a ketogenic diet was capable to reduce tumour size in mice, whereas more recent research has provided evidence that ketogenic diets may reduce tumour progression in humans, at least as far as gastric and brain cancers are concerned. Although no randomized controlled trials with VLCKD have yet been conducted on patients and the bulk of evidence in relation to the influence of VLCKD on patient survival is still anecdotal, a very recent paper by Fine et al. suggests that the insulin inhibition caused by a ketogenic diet could be a feasible adjunctive treatment for patients with cancer.” 
In layman’s terms, the ketogenic diet starves cancer cells. Otto Warburg, a cellulor biologist, discovered that cancer cells thrive off of energy produced via glucose fermentation. Glucose is produced as carbohydrates are broken down.
The theory is that by removing carbohydrates from your diet, and adhering to a ketogenic-style of eating, you are depriving cancer cells of their fuel source. This would potentially slow growth.
Cancer cells are very unique. They feature 10 times the number of surface insulin receptors. Because of this, cancer cells are able to have a glucose feeding frenzy. It should come as no surprise that high blood sugar levels correlate with tumor malignancy.  With this said, there was no correlation found between low blood sugar and patient survival rates.
It should be noted that there is still hope. These results were based on a single study.
With all this hope, there are detractors. Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez has dedicated his life to the study of nutrition’s impact on cancer. He recently issued an eight part series (found at natural health 365) in which he expounds upon the ketogenic diet and it’s possible impact on cancer treatment. 
“Unknown to most, even within the alternative world, my friend Bob Atkins tried the ketogenic diet for some 12 years on many of his cancer patients, with no significant success as he reported to me. As a telling point, under the name “Dr. Robert Atkins” on Amazon, one will find dozens of books he authored including his original diet book, its many incarnations and editions, along with books on vitamins, minerals – but glaringly absent, no book on cancer. Yes, the ketogenic diet has been tried before, with cancer patients, and without success.” 
So why is the ketogenic diet failing to yield hope in clinical studies?
Stem cell adaptability.
It is oft-assumed that cancer cells are simply normal cells gone wrong. Mutated. Twisted. Deformed. Berserk on the molecular level. Many modern scientists now believe that cancer cells form when stem cells lose their regulatory control.
If cancer is stem cell-based, then it would make sense why ketogenic diets, and why glucose restriction, doesn’t work in the long run.
Stem cells exhibit a high level of adaptability. In fact, when deprived of oxygen, stem cells show the ability to turn to glycolysis as an ATP energy source. What possibility does this hint at? That if deprived of glucose, these cancerous stem cells may actually adapt and find another method of fueling their growth.
While this has not been proven, it would certainly explain why carbohydrate restriction has yet to show promise in the treatment of cancer.
1) Wheless JW. History and origin of the ketogenic diet (PDF). In: Stafstrom CE, Rho JM, editors. Epilepsy and the ketogenic diet. Totowa: Humana Press; 2004. ISBN 1-58829-295-9.
2) Kossoff EH. Do ketogenic diets work for adults with epilepsy? Yes! epilepsy.com. 2007, March. Cited 24 October 2009.
3) Barañano KW, Hartman AL (2008). “The ketogenic diet: uses in epilepsy and other neurologic illnesses”. Curr Treat Options Neurol. 10 (6): 410–9. doi:10.1007/s11940-008-0043-8. PMC 2898565Freely accessible. PMID 18990309.
4) Allen BG, Bhatia SK, Anderson CM, et al. (Aug 2014). “Ketogenic diets as an adjuvant cancer therapy: History and potential mechanism”. Redox Biol. 2C: 963–70. doi:10.1016/j.redox.2014.08.002. PMC 4215472Freely accessible. PMID 25460731.
5) Paoli A, Rubini A, Volek JS, Grimaldi KA (2013). “Beyond weight loss: a review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets”. Eur J Clin Nutr. 67: 789–96. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2013.116. PMID 23801097.
6) “High Blood Glucose Levels Correlate with Tumor Malignancy in Colorectal Cancer Patients.” PubMed Central (PMC), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4677694/.
7) “The Ketogenic Diet and Cancer – Part 1 of 8.” Natural Health 365, www.naturalhealth365.com/cancer_part_1.html/.
8) “The Ketogenic Diet and Cancer – Part 8 of 8.” Natural Health 365, www.naturalhealth365.com/cancer_part_8.html/.