Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April 2018 in the Heroes Against Cancer Newsletter.
As rates of cancer rise, people are beginning to take charge of their health and look to non-traditional therapies for treatment. Whether someone chooses conventional or non-traditional therapies, it is critical to have a nutrition action plan in place to optimize the body’s ability to fight off cancer. A plant-based ketogenic diet is a powerful strategy to use in the fight against cancer.
In addition to the robust nutrient density of a plant-based ketogenic diet, this nutrition plan puts cancer cells at a disadvantage and aids the body in fighting cancer cells. A plant-based ketogenic diet trains the body to use fat for fuel, alleviating the mechanisms that allow cancer to grow.
This article discusses the aspects of the plant-based ketogenic diet, how this diet is therapeutic in the fight against cancer, the key cancer mechanisms that can be influenced by a plant-based ketogenic diet, and the top cancer-fighting foods.
Why the Ketogenic Diet for Cancer?
The ketogenic diet is a powerful tool in the fight against cancer. It is a high healthy fat, low carbohydrate, and low to moderate protein nutrition plan. The keto diet puts cancer cells, which feed off sugar, at an energetic disadvantage by depriving them of their preferred fuel source.
Cancer cells are much different from normal cells. Pioneer researchers, including Otto Warburg and Dr. Thomas Seyfried, discovered that cancer cells have abnormal mitochondria.1 Mitochondria produce energy for cells by taking either sugar or ketones (from fat) and turning them into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy currency of the body.
Most energy production takes place in the mitochondria, but a small amount occurs in the fluid, or cytosol, of the cell. Mitochondria and other smaller organelles float in the cytosol. Energy production in the cytosol can only occur with sugar as the source, not ketones.
Energy production in the cytosol is inefficient and produces high amounts of toxic byproducts that damage the cell. Cancer cells have damaged mitochondria and can only produce energy from sugar in their cytosol.
Cancer cells also have more insulin receptors than normal cells. The increased number of insulin receptors gives cancer cells the ability to rapidly absorb glucose and potentially steal it away from healthy cells. A high sugar, carbohydrate-rich diet feeds cancer cells their preferred fuel source while a ketogenic diet deprives cancer cells of their preferred fuel source.
How a Plant-Based Keto Diet Fights Cancer
While the ketogenic diet is powerful, the best nutrition plan to combat cancer would combine a plant-based diet with the ketogenic diet. A plant-based diet can be potent to fight cancer because numerous plant compounds have been shown to act on different pathways in the body to downregulate cancer growth.
Curcumin is a great example of a plant compound with therapeutic benefits for cancer. Curcumin is the active compound in the spice turmeric. It has been shown to act on the COX and LOX enzyme systems, which are inflammatory pathways in the body.2 Elevations in these inflammatory pathways are associated with the aggressive progression of cancer.3
Using compounds such as turmeric may downregulate these inflammatory pathways, having a therapeutic effect on cancer.
In addition to curcumin, there are numerous other plant compounds that target different pathways in the body. These anti-cancer nutrients perform similar functions while each providing their own unique benefits to the body.
Incorporating a variety of these compounds into the diet can provide a multifaceted approach to creating an internal environment that does not favor the growth of cancer. This approach should be considered as a natural cancer-fighting strategy to give the body the best chances to overcome the disease.
Plant-Based vs. Vegan Diets
For optimal health, it is important to include certain animal products in the diet for their unique health benefits. A plant-based ketogenic diet with a small amount of animal foods is ideal for transforming your health.
While there are certain aspects of a vegan diet that are very therapeutic, there are numerous potential health risks associated with a vegan diet. These health risks include: vitamin and mineral deficiencies, blood sugar dysregulation, low complete protein and fat intake, and more. For these reasons, it is best to include limited amounts of animal products in the diet.
What We Know About Cancer
It is critical to recognize two important aspects of cancer to understand how a plant-based ketogenic diet is therapeutic. These are: how cancer cells are fueled and the epigenetic influences of cancer.
The first important aspect of cancer is that cancer cells thrive in a high-sugar environment. As discussed above, the mitochondria of cancer cells are damaged and use only sugar for energy. By following a ketogenic diet, cancer cells are placed at an energetic disadvantage because the body burns fat rather than sugar for fuel.
The second important aspect of cancer is that cancer has epigenetic influences. Cancer is generally a result of faulty DNA leading to poorly functioning cells (genetics). The thought was that these DNA mutations were completely random and conditions like cancer simply “run in the family.”
We now know that there are several epigenetic pathways in the body that are associated with cancer growth. Epigenetic influences, such as diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors, can largely dictate whether these faulty DNA sequences will occur or not. A plant-based ketogenic diet can alter the epigenetic pathways to improve your chances of overcoming cancer.
Understanding 4 Key Cancer Mechanisms
The four primary pathways in the body for cancer are AMPK, IGF-1, mTOR, and the p53 gene. It is important to understand these key cancer mechanisms and how a plant-based ketogenic diet can impact them.
1 | AMPK
AMPK (Adenosine Monophosphate-activated Protein Kinase) is an energy-regulating molecule that signals ATP production. Upregulation of the AMPK pathway can help the body fight cancer.
As ATP is broken down for energy within cells, phosphate groups are removed to form ADP (Adenosine Diphosphate) and AMP (Adenosine Monophosphate). When the ratio of AMP to ATP is increased, this is a sign that energy is getting low. AMPK is activated and signals the upregulation of ATP production.
AMPK activity can be upregulated with carbohydrate restriction and numerous plant-based com- pounds. Upregulation of the AMPK pathway helps the body fight cancer by diverting sugar from cancer cells to healthy cells. This limits the fuel supply to cancer cells.4
2 | IGF-1
IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) is a growth-stimulating hormone that regulates the reproduction and regeneration of cells. It is normal for children in the rapid developmental stages of life to have high levels of IGF-1.
However, elevated IGF-1 can be a catalyst for cancer growth for those not in a rapid develop- mental stage of life. Protein restriction, fasting, exercise, curcumin, resveratrol, and many other plant-based compounds can inhibit the production of excess IGF-1.
3 | mTOR
mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) is a physiological pathway that regulates cell growth and replication. mTOR is necessary for a healthy body. However, cancerous tissues have an elevated activation of the mTOR pathway. This can contribute to the rapid cell division found in cancer.
Insulin is one of the primary activators of the mTOR pathway. A high-sugar diet leads to high levels of insulin which may contribute to cancer by elevating mTOR activity. Excessive protein consumption can also stimulate this pathway. A plant-based ketogenic diet with limited amounts of protein can be a great strategy to prevent these pathways from contributing to cancer growth.5
4 | The p53 Gene
The p53 gene regulates what happens to damaged DNA sequences before they lead to problems in cell development. When functioning properly, the p53 gene responds in two ways to disorderly cells. If the defective DNA can be repaired, the p53 gene allows the cell to go back into its normal cycle of growth and reproduction. If the defective DNA cannot be repaired, the p53 signals for cellular apoptosis (programmed cell death), halting the potential for cancerous growth.
This critical gene is inactive in many cancers. A high-sugar diet and certain nutritional deficiencies, such as zinc deficiency, contribute to the inactivity or mutation of the p53 gene. There are numerous plant-based compounds that can help restore proper p53 function.
Protein Requirements: How Much Protein Should You Consume?
Overall protein consumption is an important component of the ketogenic diet. Overconsumption of protein can result in the stimulation of insulin levels and the protein being converted to glucose.
Low Protein Plant-Based Ketogenic Diet for Cancer
Daily protein consumption on an anti-cancer nutrition plan should be lower than for a healthy, active individual following a keto diet or someone dealing with an autoimmune condition other than cancer. A higher amount of protein can overstimulate the mTOR pathway and IGF-1 which are often hyperactive and stimulate out of control cell reproduction processes.
To reduce the mTOR pathway and IGF-1 expression, it is important to consume around 0.5 g/kg of protein. To use the same weight as the example above, a 160-pound person would consume only about 36 grams of protein per day.
For individuals consuming this reduced amount of protein it is important to hydrate throughout the day, increase fat intake, and increase overall vegetable content for increased fiber. This will help the individual stay full while consuming low amounts of protein.
In addition to the low protein, plant-based ketogenic nutrition plan, intermittent and extended day fasting is highly recommended. Fasting will help slow down mTOR and IGF-1 expression, improve AMP-K expression, and stabilize the p53 gene.
13 Top Cancer-Fighting Foods to Include in Your Ketogenic Diet
While following a plant-based ketogenic diet, it is important to incorporate specific foods that have powerful anti-cancer effects. Here are the top cancer-fighting plant foods as well as select animal products with unique cancer-fighting benefits.
[Note: It’s important to consume organic/no-spray versions of all of these foods in order to achieve the full range of benefits.]
1 | Berries
Berries are low-glycemic fruits that contain quercetin and abundant antioxidants. Anthocyanins are a unique class of purple pigmented antioxidant compounds in berries. Anthocyanins may promote AMPK activation while inhibiting mTOR.
Berries and anthocyanins target cancer stem cells and upregulate tumor suppression genes. The antioxidant activity of berries acts to prevent cancer by protecting DNA from damage and to slow the development of cancer. Wild blueberries are one of the best sources of anthocyanins.
2 | Alliums
Garlic and onions are allium vegetables. Allium vegetables contain allicin, selenium, and naturally occurring glutathione. These act as powerful antioxidants in the body to alleviate free radical damage and protect against cancer.
Alliums are an important cancer-fighting food through numerous mechanisms.6 One of these mechanisms is the protective effect of alliums over the p53 gene. The p53 gene helps to maintain the body’s ability to detect and eradicate defective cells before they develop into cancerous growths.
3 | Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables have amazing health benefits, including anti-cancer effects. Cruciferous vegetables help to activate the NRF2 pathway, a powerful antioxidant system in the body with strong cancer-fighting implications.
In addition to a wide array of nutrients, broccoli and Brussels sprouts contain quercetin and sulforaphane which have anti-cancer effects.7 Sulforaphane is a sulfur compound called an isothiocyanate that plays an important role in maintaining p53 function. Sulforaphane also assists the liver in the detoxification of excess estrogen in the body. This can help in the treatment of hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast cancer.
4 | Green Tea
Green tea is one of the healthiest beverages you can consume. It contains EGCG and quercetin, two potent anti-cancer compounds. These compounds act as powerful antioxidants that upregulate AMPK activity, inhibit IGF-1 and the mTOR pathway, and protect the p53 gene. Through these mechanisms, green tea has been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth and promote cancer cell apoptosis (programmed cell death).
Green tea also helps to promote the production of the antioxidants glutathione and superoxide dismutase (SOD). These antioxidants drastically lower inflammation in the body.
5 | Leafy Green Vegetables
Leafy green vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods available. Kale, arugula, collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, and Swiss chard are all leafy greens that are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and chlorophyll.
Chlorophyll can help the body detoxify carcinogenic substances by binding and eliminating them in the digestive tract. Chlorophyll also helps to support liver detoxification.8
Like cruciferous vegetables, the leafy green kale contains sulforaphane. Sulforaphane is the powerful isothiocyanate that reduces cancer cell replication and boosts the immune system.
6 | Sprouts
One of the most commonly overlooked cancer-fighting foods is the sprout. Sprouts, such as broccoli sprouts or kale sprouts, are nutritionally magnified versions of the food. For example, broccoli sprouts contain up to 100 times the antioxidant raw material of broccoli.
In addition to activating antioxidant pathways, sprouts have cancer-fighting enzymes to protect the body from carcinogens.9 Great ways to incorporate sprouts into the diet include adding to salads, wraps, or green smoothies.
7 | Herbs
Chronic inflammation is strongly associated with aggressive cancer growth. Consuming antioxidant-rich foods is one of the easiest and most effect ways of lowering inflammation on a daily basis. Herbs are some of the most antioxidant-rich foods available.
Oregano, basil, rosemary, and milk thistle are all herbs with their own unique compounds to assist the body in fighting cancer growth. These herbs should be used abundantly to boost the nutrient density and antioxidant potential of meals.
8 | Turmeric
Turmeric is an Indian spice that is rich in a variety of healing compounds. The compound in turmeric that has received the most attention for its healing properties is curcumin. Curcumin has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which may help prevent the development of cancer.10
Curcumin has also been shown to prevent the spread of tumors and support apoptosis (cell death). Curcumin can target cancer stem cells to aid in preventing the recurrence of cancer. Many conventional treatments do little to kill cancer stem cells, which is why cancers often reoccur more aggressively after conventional treatments.
9 | Butter/Ghee
Butter and ghee are excellent sources of cancer-fighting nutrition. Butter contains the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K, in addition to two important healing compounds, butyrate and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid and is typically produced by the bacteria in the gut. When butyrate from butter is consumed, it has anti-inflammatory and gut-healing properties. With gut inflammation being one of the leading causes of inflammation throughout the body, it is essential to use nutrients like butyrate to help heal the gut.
CLA is an amazing nutrient that boosts metabolism and has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. CLA may activate genes responsible for suppressing tumor growth.
Only small amounts of CLA are needed for the benefit of its cancer-fighting properties.11
10 | Bone Broth & Collagen
Many cancer patients, especially those who have undergone chemotherapy or radiation treatments, have numerous digestive issues. This is due to inflammation in the gut as a result of conventional treatments.
For people with gut inflammation, it is important to get easily digestible protein into their bodies. Two excellent sources of easily digestible protein are bone broth and collagen protein.
Bone broth is super easy to digest and helps soothe and heal inflamed tissues in the gut. The immune system will also improve as digestive issues are often the root cause of chronic inflammation and autoimmunity.
Collagen protein has similar benefits to bone broth. Both bone broth and collagen protein can be made at home or purchased in liquid or powdered form. It is very important to only consume bone broth or collagen protein from grass-fed sources.
11 | Pasture-Raised Eggs
Pasture-raised eggs are an excellent addition to a plant-based ketogenic diet. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens provide a wide array of nutrients including carotenoid antioxidants, vitamins D, E, and K, fatty acids EPA, DHA and CLA, choline, and lecithin. These eggs may be the most nutritionally complete food on the planet and are great to include in the cancer-fighting diet.
12 | Organ Meats
Organ meats, particularly heart and liver, are some of the most nutritionally dense foods you can consume. Organ meats have much more nutrition than the muscle meats most people consume.
Two of the healthiest organ meats are liver and heart. Liver is full of B vitamins, vitamin A, zinc, and selenium. These nutrients are critical for energy production and immune function.
Heart is rich in CoQ10 in addition to zinc, selenium, and B vitamins. CoQ10 is essential for good mitochondrial function. Individuals with chronic diseases such as cancer are frequently deficient in CoQ10.
It is important to only consume organs from grass-fed, pasture-raised animals. The recommended intake of organ meat is only one to two times per week.
13 | Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Chronic inflammation is common for individuals battling cancer. Increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake and decreasing omega-6 fat intake can have a powerful impact on inflammatory pathways in the body.
The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are wild-caught sockeye salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, wild-caught cod, and light tuna. Purified fish oil supplements are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in processed oils. We must reduce the intake of these fats to reduce inflammation in the body.
Implementing a plant-based ketogenic diet is essential in the fight against cancer. This nutrition plan addresses two important aspects of cancer:
1) Cancer thrives on sugar; and 2) Cancer is influenced by several epigenetic mechanisms. Employing the following guidelines will optimize your diet for preventing and fighting cancer:
- Consume most of your calories from healthy fats.
- Reduce carbohydrate intake to 5% or less of daily calories.
- Restrict protein consumption to around 0.5g/kg of body weight to reduce mTOR expression.
- Consume a variety of plant-based foods, such as leafy greens, berries, herbs, turmeric, alliums, cruciferous vegetables, and sprouts.
- Consume green tea, bone broth, collagen, grass-fed butter/ghee, pasture-raised eggs, organ meats, and omega-3 fatty acid sources.
- Consider a daily intermittent fast, alternate day fasting, or periodic multiple day fasts to further boost AMPK and reduce mTOR expression.
The plant-based ketogenic diet provides a foundational nutrition and lifestyle program for anyone that is dealing with any stage of cancer to follow. Please note that this plan should be used as an adjunct to (meaning along with) more advanced natural and/or conventional cancer healing approaches.