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Can an ultra-low-carb diet help cure cancer?

This is an idea that’s generating a lot of excitement at the moment – and prompted a question on our Nourish by Jane Clarke Facebook Community – so we’ve taken a closer look at the research

cauliflower cheese
 Cauliflower cheese is high in protein and fat, and low in carbohydrates,
making it a great option on a Ketogenic Diet

The Ketogenic Diet is a low-carbohydrate diet, which means starchy foods such as potatoes, rice and pasta are off the menu, as well as sugary items including fruit (berries, which are naturally low in sugar, are an exception). Instead, the diet focuses on protein and fat – so you can eat seafood, meat and eggs; full-fat dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt and milk; fats including olive oil, butter and coconut oil, plus nuts, seeds and fat-rich avocado; and low-carbohydrate vegetables like kale, broccoli and cauliflower. Cutting out carbohydrates forces your body to burn the fat you have already stored. This process, called ketosis, usually begins three to four days after eliminating carbs from your diet.

The effects of the Ketogenic Diet
For most people, the Ketogenic Diet will result in weight loss. That may sound okay – especially as we read the newspapers and see the posters and know that obesity is a risk factor for some cancers – but it can be worrying when you’re undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy as these treatments tend to rely on maintaining a steady weight. Chemotherapy drugs are often weight and dose specific, meaning your oncology team can throw more ammunition at the cancer if you maintain a healthy weight. With radiotherapy, maintaining body size and shape allows the radiology team to target the tumour accurately each time.

When your body burns fat because it is starved of carbohydrates, it makes ketones. Ketones are a type of acid made by your liver, then sent into the bloodstream. Too many ketones can lead to dehydration and alter the chemical balance of your blood, making you feel light headed and drowsy – which is the last thing you need when you’re undergoing treatment.

The Ketogenic Diet and cancer
Some research has shown a link between the Ketogenic Diet and slowed growth of some types of tumours in mice. A few studies in humans with certain types of brain tumours have also shown promise. And there is exciting research around the effect of the Ketogenic Diet on the microbiome (the ecosystem of beneficial bacteria in our body), which has been linked to a reduced risk of developing cancer. In addition, some studies are showing that a Ketogenic Diet can boost the microbiome and have a positive impact on the effectiveness of cancer treatments such as immunotherapy and chemotherapy. However, the evidence is still not conclusive. 

Is the Ketogenic Diet right for you?
While there’s potential that the Ketogenic Diet could help some cancer patients, it can also harm others. Depending on your type of cancer or cancer treatment, your body may not be able to break down the proteins and fats, which could lead to other digestive problems. However, depending on your strength and if you usually eat a well-balanced diet, you may want to consider following a Ketogenic Diet for one week a month – ensuring it’s nourishing and calorie rich to help you maintain as much weight as possible while you’re undergoing treatment. Do always seek professional advice and talk to your doctor or cancer care team before embarking on the Ketogenic Diet or any other major change to your usual eating.

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