Ketogenic Diet vs Cancer

By recent ASU nutrition student Alysia Nelson

Part of an ongoing series of articles on the Ketogenic Diet


With the number of new cancer diagnosis’s, 454.8 of 100,000 people per year, it is more than likely this disease has affected you one way or another.1 Whether it has been a personal battle or a battle of someone close to you, it is safe to say cancer has had a major impact on society. The mortality rate of this disease is 71.2 per 100,000 of people diagnosed per year.1 This contributes to the National expenditures for cancer care totaling $125 billion per year.1 It is expected that 19 million will be living with cancer by 2024 and costs could reach $156 billion by 2020.1 Cancer is one of the leading causes of death across the world and it’s time we find a cure. There is a heavy emphasis on western medicine as a treatment of cancer, but what would a world look like if cancer could also be treated through a diet? The Ketogenic diet shows promise of starving cancer cells, creating a hostile environment for cancer cells to survive.2

Since there are so many different types of cancers and different variables involved in each one, we will stick to the basics of what we know about cancer. The discovery that cancer cells aren’t able to use energy from cellular respiration, but rather glucose fermentation, is credited to Otto Warburg, a leading cell biologist.2 This discovery has since been used to prove that cancer cells are also able to get energy from the amino acid, glutamine.2 Many cancer researchers agree that cancer cells get their fuel from glucose and thrive best when an individual has high blood sugar levels.2 Cancer cells differ from normal cells in many ways; They have 10 times more insulin receptors on their surface.2 A cell like this allows cancer cells to utilize glucose and nutrients in the bloodstream at a rapid rate.2 Cancer cells are also unable to metabolize fatty acids for fuel because they have damaged mitochondria leaving them unable to use aerobic respiration for energy.2 For this reason, they metabolize glucose and amino acids thriving in oxygen-depleted environments.2

The restriction of glucose or the amino acid glutamine is essential to kill cancer cells. Glutamine is a constituent of most proteins meaning a diet high in protein can also fuel cancer cells.2 A ketogenic diet is the perfect diet consisting of 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbohydrates. With the restriction of carbohydrates and limited amount of protein, cancer cells would be unable to reproduce and survive. According to an article published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), ketogenic diets could be a dietary manipulation used to create metabolic oxidative stress in cancer cells, proving to be a diet efficient in killing cancer cells.3 In fact, preclinical studies have demonstrated that a ketogenic diet combined with radio-chemo-therapy have improved responses in cancer models.3

Even though chemo-radiation has advanced incredibly recently, it still leaves a poor prognosis for cancer patients.3 This leads to a need for natural approaches that reduce the amount of toxicity a patient receives while selectively killing cancer cells and protecting normal cells.3 A ketogenic diet naturally exploits oxidative metabolic differences between cancer cells and normal cells.3 Dr. Thomas Seyfried, leading proponent on the metabolic theory of cancer using Warburg’s findings, argues that several studies shows a relationship between the slowing of tumor progression on a ketogenic diet.4 He recognizes that cancer treatments now have become so toxic that they are unnecessarily poisoning people to try to get them healthy. Seyfried knows that imposing nutrition as a cancer treatment will still be combined with existing therapies but he believes it will create less of a need for toxic methods to patients, creating an opportunity for lower doses.4

A ketogenic has been proven to be suitable for even advanced cancer patients creating improvement of quality of life without any side effects.5 Beating this disease with the help of nutrition could be the new treatment to cancer. Here is what a ketogenic diet would look like in a cancer patient: the recommended optimal blood glucose, sugar, level to destroy cancer cells is between 60-70mg/dl and ketone levels should be between 4-7mM.2 Omega-3 supplements have also shown stimulation of the anti-cancer effects in a ketogenic diet.2 While there are numerous testimonials about how a ketogenic diet helped patients beat their cancer, more trials are needed to label this diet as a new treatment. For now, we should continue to explore the benefits of the ketogenic diet in cancer patients.

1 Cancer Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from

2 How the Ketogenic Diet Weakens Cancer Cells. (2017, June 01). Retrieved from

3 Allen, B. G., Bhatia, S. K., Anderson, C. M., Eichenberger-Gilmore, J. M., Sibenaller, Z. A., Mapuskar, K. A., . . . Fath, M. A. (2014). Retrieved from

4 Stetka, B. (2016, March 05). Fighting Cancer By Putting Tumor Cells On A Diet. Retrieved from

5 Schmidt, M., Pfetzer, N., Schwab, M., Strauss, I., & Kämmerer, U. (2011). Retrieved from

Editor’s Note: Fill Your Plate neither endorses or supports this type of diet, but encourages readers to always consult with your doctor regarding special diets. This series shares one nutrition student’s experience with the diet.

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