by Jerome Burne
How about this for a crazy, irresponsible idea? If you’ve got cancer, cut the amount of carbohydrates you are eating down to no more than 25 grams a day (that’s just under an ounce) as a way shrinking the tumour and boosting your health into the bargain. Out go pasta, rice, all sugars – cakes and biscuits of course – along with various vegetables, and you replace them with a big increase in such fatty foods as cheese, meat, eggs, coconut and avocado oils.
The very idea of such a switch might be enough to give conventional nutritionists and oncologists heart attacks but hear me out because a few researchers have been coming up with some very interesting but little known findings that show drastically cutting carbs has a lot to recommend it. Not just as a weight loss diet but as an active treatment for cancer – as well as diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s but they are another story.
Many of you will recognise this as a form of Atkins diet that was usually promoted for weight loss but the idea of cutting out all sugar as a starting point for any cancer diet is something clinical nutritionists have been advising for years on the grounds that cancer cells are well known to use up glucose at a much faster rate than healthy cells. This is why the PET scans used to detect tumours, which track glucose consumption, can spot them.
Cutting out sugar is simplistic
However even just cutting sugar was heavily attacked in a hostile Which? magazine report on nutritional therapists in January last year. ‘If cancer treatment were as simplistic as cutting out sugar,” commented Dr Margaret McCartney, one of the magazine’s panel of experts, “surely we would have discovered a cure. This advice is highly irresponsible.
Well maybe. In fact several teams are researching the link between sugar intake and cancer growth. A couple of years ago Dr Anthony Heaney of the Jonsson Cancer Centre at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) published a paper showing that cancer cells could use fructose to increase their ability to spread.
The introduction to the study reads: “Carbohydrate metabolism ….is pivotal for cancer growth, and increased refined carbohydrate consumption adversely affects cancer survival.” Discussing his finding Heaney said: “Efforts to reduce refined fructose intake …may disrupt cancer growth.”
And here’s another study from UCLA, published last year, which suggested that cancer cells’ “prodigious appetite for glucose” was a “possible target for cancer therapies”. The study, by Professor Thomas Graeber in the Journal of Molecular Systems Biology, demonstrated that “glucose starvation (depriving cancer cells of glucose) activates a metabolic and signalling amplification loop that leads to cancer cells death.”
Low glucose and living longer
So cutting back on sugar is certainly not firmly proven nor the only treatment but it is far from ignorant or lacking an evidence base.
What’s more, cutting off a tumour’s energy supply isn’t the only beneficial effect of dropping carbs right down. Way back in the 1930s researchers found that restricting lab animals’ calorie intake (as part of the general reduction they got fewer carbs) not only lowered their glucose and insulin levels and kept them very healthy but also made them live longer.
Then in the 1990’s top American geneticist Professor Cynthia Kenyon established a clear link between calorie restriction and changes in a gene that controls insulin. She found that cutting the calories of worms made them healthier and longer-lived too. She also found that it reduced the activity of a gene that controls insulin called IGF-1. Further research has found it has the same effect in humans.