The ketogenic diet is commonly used to treat epilepsy and it also appears to have applications in an integrative cancer setting as well. The concept behind the diet is that by changing the composition of the foods you eat it will fundamentally change the energy metabolism in your nervous system. The diet consists of consuming high amounts of fats while avoiding carbohydrates. This diet can be a challenge to maintain but in specific cases it is certainly worth the effort.
This high fat and low carbohydrate diet forces the body to burn fats for energy rather than sugars. Normally the brain uses glucose (sugar) as its primary source of energy but if there is a shortage of sugar the liver then converts fats into ketone bodies. These ketones pass into the brain and replace glucose as the primary source of energy. High levels of ketones in the blood are very strongly correlated with a decrease in the frequency of epileptic seizures.
Healthy cells within the nervous system are able to easily shift their metabolism to become dependent on ketone bodies. Cancerous cells within the nervous system have very high energetic requirements and they struggle to shift to this new energy source. As a result cancers that are of nervous tissue origin are vulnerable to the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet slows down the rate of growth of brain tumours because the cancerous cells do not have an abundant and useable energy source under these conditions2,3,4. In my experience the ketogenic diet works synergistically with DCA in patients with brain tumours. The evidence for the use of the ketogenic diet with brain cancers is overwhelming. There is also evidence to suggest that this diet can be helpful with other forms of cancer5. The results from the Ketogenic diet on brain tumours are far more dramatic than with other forms of cancer.
This diet is very difficult to maintain for long periods of time and it takes discipline to do it properly. I always recommend the ketogenic diet to patients with brain cancers, however, I do not regularly recommend it to patients with other forms of cancer. Although there is some evidence to suggest that it can still be helpful, it is often very stressful for patients to adhere to this strict diet plan. In advanced metastatic cases it can be helpful to begin the ketogenic diet because it slows down the rate of growth by changing the energy source for the cancer. In localized cancers that do not originate from the brain, the effect of the ketogenic diet is minimal. This diet is not a cure for cancer but it can certainly help to slow the growth and it can be used safely in conjunction with other medical treatments.
The reality is that in order for this diet to have the desired effect you need to strictly adhere to the diet plan. The goal is to starve the cancer cells of their primary energy source, every time you consume sugar they immediately use this to produce energy. There are a number of good online resources that can help you transition to an effective ketogenic diet. One good website is:
Often when making such a dramatic dietary change the key to success is slowly transitioning to the new diet. In this circumstance it is best to make the transition as rapidly as possible and resources like the above website can help with that transition. It is very important to consult a Naturopathic doctor to determine if this is the right diet for you. This diet is not for everyone and it takes clinical judgement to determine if this is best option.
Dr. Adam McLeod is a Naturopathic Doctor (ND), BSc. (Hon) Molecular biology, First Nations Healer, Motivational Speaker and International Best Selling Author.
He currently practices at his clinic, Yaletown Naturopathic Clinic, in Vancouver, BC where he focuses on integrative oncology.
1) Freeman JM, Kossoff EH, Hartman AL. The ketogenic diet: one decade later. Pediatrics. 2007 Mar;119(3):535–43.
2) Zhou, Weihua, et al. “The calorically restricted ketogenic diet, an effective alternative therapy for malignant brain cancer.” Nutr Metab (Lond) 4.5 (2007): 5.
3) Nebeling, Linda C., et al. “Effects of a ketogenic diet on tumor metabolism and nutritional status in pediatric oncology patients: two case reports.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 14.2 (1995): 202-208.
4) Seyfried, Thomas N., and Purna Mukherjee. “Targeting energy metabolism in brain cancer: review and hypothesis.” Nutrition & metabolism 2.1 (2005): 30.
5) Schmidt, Melanie, et al. “Effects of a ketogenic diet on the quality of life in 16 patients with advanced cancer: A pilot trial.” Nutr Metab (Lond) 8.1 (2011): 54.