The Ketogenic Diet: Cancer Breakthrough or Madness?

Written by Dr. Colin Champ
Posted June 24, 2014 at 8:38PM

There has been a lot of buzz recently regarding ketones. As a cancer physician and researcher, I spend a lot of time thinking about ketones throughout the day. 

But what exactly is a ketone, you may be asking...

Ketones are the energy supply our body makes to feed the brain during times of starvation, carbohydrate deprivation, fasting, or even just after a night’s rest.

Our cells require a constant amount of oxygen and an energy source for survival. Sugar within the blood can provide a small amount of energy, as can proteins and fats. But when sugar is not around, the body turns to ketone production to feed the brain and other organs and cells. 

Through fasting and cutting carbohydrates, one can raise the amount of ketones feeding his or her brain and floating around in the body. Not only is this a clinically proven and superior method of weight loss,1–4 but it also has promise as a method of cancer treatment, or at least working together with current cancer treatments.5–8

You see, when ketone production in the body is high, your sugar levels drop, which is important, as cancer cells use sugar for energy.9 There is also a handful of data showing that cancer cells may not be able to use ketones for energy, while normal cells can.10

As an oncologist, when I heard that ketones may selectively starve cancer cells, I was excited and began aggressively researching it. However, with all the chatter on the internet of the dangers of ketones, I have been wondering if all my work regarding the ketogenic diet is putting people in harm’s way as opposed to helping them.

I recently got my answer while I was stuck on an airplane. I was seated next to someone who was engaging in a ketogenic diet consisting of pure liquid. His diet was almost 60% fat, mostly in order to produce ketones.

The fat of this liquid contained a handful of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) — fats that are found in foods like coconut oil and have an uncanny ability to increase the body’s ketone production.

Not only was this person eating a very high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, but he was also purposely increasing his ketone production. According to many, this must be extremely dangerous...

Who was this madman, actively destroying his health? And why in the world was he doing it?

Well, he was actually a three-month-old baby, and the solution he was surviving on was breast milk.

Breast milk contains a significant amount of MCTs, and a diet solely consisting of breast milk will induce ketosis.

Basically, most of us have entered into this world in ketosis. Ketones are a basic element of survival, whether you are a baby or an adult. Many of us rely on them at night while we sleep, in the morning before work, and as a baby, during one of the most important periods for growth and development.

Not only are ketones not unsafe; they are actually necessary for survival and development. They fuel the brain with energy and provide it with necessary building blocks. They can also help fight neurodegenerative and other diseases.11

Does this mean we should aim to be in ketosis 100% of the time?

Probably not. More likely, full-time ketosis is not for everyone. The science at this point remains unsolved.

However, some — and especially those with certain medical conditions — may actually benefit from full-time low-carbohydrate ketosis. Regarding ketones as poison is the furthest thing from the truth.

This conviction likely stems from the ingrained belief that diets should consist of heavy amounts of carbs and that anything otherwise is unhealthy. This, of course, could not be further from the truth, as evidenced by the havoc high-carb diets have caused.

The data on the effects of ketosis in cancer treatment and prevention remains unknown in humans. Animal studies and preclinical data have shown potential, which is encouraging as cancer continues to affect each and every one of us, whether through family, friends, or personally.

However, before we set foot into this unchartered territory, the false views on the dangers of ketosis from minimizing dietary carbohydrates need to stop.

To Your Health,

Dr. Colin Champ

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References:

1. Westman EC, Mavropoulos J, Yancy WS, Volek JS. A Review of Low-carbohydrate Ketogenic Diets. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2003;5(6):476-483.

2. Forsythe C, Phinney S, Fernandez M, et al. Comparison of Low Fat and Low Carbohydrate Diets on Circulating Fatty Acid Composition and Markers of Inflammation. Lipids. 2008;43(1):65-77. doi:10.1007/s11745-007-3132-7.

3. Volek J, Phinney S, Forsythe C, et al. Carbohydrate Restriction has a More Favorable Impact on the Metabolic Syndrome than a Low Fat Diet. Lipids. 2009;44(4):297-309. doi:10.1007/s11745-008-3274-2.

4. Volek JS, Sharman MJ, Love DM, et al. Body composition and hormonal responses to a carbohydrate-restricted diet. Metabolism. 2002;51(7):864-870. Available at: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0026049502000100?showall=true.

5. Champ CE, Volek JS, Siglin J, Jin L, Simone NL. Weight Gain, Metabolic Syndrome, and Breast Cancer Recurrence: Are Dietary Recommendations Supported by the Data? Int J Breast Cancer. 2012;2012:9. doi:10.1155/2012/506868.

6. Champ CE, Baserga R, Mishra M V, et al. Nutrient Restriction and Radiation Therapy for Cancer Treatment: When Less Is More. Oncologist. 2013;18(1):97-103. doi:10.1634/theoncologist.2012-0164.

7. Klement RJ, Champ CE. Calories, carbohydrates, and cancer therapy with radiation: exploiting the five R’s through dietary manipulation. Cancer Metastasis Rev. 2014. doi:10.1007/s10555-014-9495-3.

8. Simone BA, Champ CE, Rosenberg AL, et al. Selectively starving cancer cells through dietary manipulation: methods and clinical implications. Futur Oncol. 2013;9(7):959-976. doi:10.2217/fon.13.31.

9. Champ CE, Palmer JD, Volek JS, et al. Targeting metabolism with a ketogenic diet during the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme. J Neurooncol. 2014;117(1):125-31. doi:10.1007/s11060-014-1362-0.

10. Maurer GD, Brucker DP, Bahr O, et al. Differential utilization of ketone bodies by neurons and glioma cell lines: a rationale for ketogenic diet as experimental glioma therapy. BMC Cancer. 2011;11:315. doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-315.

11. Veech RL. The therapeutic implications of ketone bodies: the effects of ketone bodies in pathological conditions: ketosis, ketogenic diet, redox states, insulin resistance, and mitochondrial metabolism. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fat Acids. 2004;70(3):309-319. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2003.09.007.

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