Starving cancer: why it makes sense.

Cutting carbs could cut cancer

This is yet more evidence that changes in diet can directly affect what is going on in tumours because other research has found a link between IGF-I and cancer. When you eat a high carbohydrate diet your levels of blood glucose go up along with an increase in the level of insulin, which is released to clear it away. So it’s wise to keep your carbs down because there is good, if not absolutely definitive, evidence that high insulin stimulates cancer.

A very detailed summary of the benefits of a low carbohydrate diet, not just for cancer but also for other chronic conditions, has just been published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It explains that as well as helping tumours to grow, the IGF-1 pathway may also stimulate various other processes that encourage tumour survival such as protecting it from a process that forces damaged cells to commit suicide and help it to link up to a nearby blood supply. “It seems a reasonable possibility,” the authors conclude “that a very low carbohydrate diet could help to reduce the progression of some types of cancer, although at present the evidence is preliminary.”

I may be wrong but I suspect that the expert panel assembled by Which? magazine wasn’t  aware of this research and nor it would seem are the people responsible for dietary advice at the great majority of cancer units in the UK. The advice given to cancer patients at The Royal Marsden, for instance, focuses on getting easily digestible calories into patients.

Buying puddings at the supermarket

The booklet begins by suggesting that patients avoid sugary drinks but it goes on to recommend bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pasta, rice, chapatis, rotis, noodle; to use evaporated milk, condensed milk or cream to top desserts, cakes or hot drinks; to use extra sugar, honey or syrup with cereal, drinks, fruit and desserts and ends by saying: “Lots of puddings can be bought ready-made from your local supermarket.”

This is a high carbohydrate intake with a vengeance. Critics of the low carb approach would say that it is far too early, that the evidence isn’t there yet and what about the animal studies? In fact the pioneer researcher in this area Thomas Seyfried, Professor of Biology at Boston College, has been running animal trials on the effect of the very low carbohydrate diet for over a decade.

He’s shown that they can reduce tumour size in mice by up to 90% as well as triggering various anti-cancer processes, such as increasing the rate at which tumours self-destruct and making them far less efficient at plugging into nearby blood supplies. The research is set out in his book: “Cancer as a Metabolic Disease: On the Origin, Management, and Prevention of Cancer”, which came out last year.

Low carbs boost survival times in the lab

Back in 2005 Professor Seyfried wrote a remarkable paper that detailed why the very low carb diet could be a far better way of treating brain cancers than the current approach, which among other drawbacks has the effect of increasing the amount of glucose available to tumours. It explains why the diet can not only degrade cancer cells but also improve the functioning of normal cells. A follow up paper on the benefits of treating brain cancer with a combination of very low carbs and calorie restriction appeared in 2011.

Another scientist who is working with animals in the lab is Dr Dominic D’Agostino, Assistant professor of molecular pharmacology at South Florida College of Medicine. He’s recently shown that putting mice with cancer that had spread (metastasised) on a very low carb diet had a dramatic effect. The rate their tumour was growing slowed down and their average survival time went up by 56.7%. That benefit was boosted even further when the mice were put into a special chamber filled with oxygen at a slightly raised pressure (hyperbaric oxygen). This pushed survival time up by nearly 80%.

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne is the editor of HealthInsightUK. He is an award-winning journalist who has been specialising in medicine and health for the last 10 years and now works mainly for the Daily Mail. His most recent book “The Hybrid Diet” was written with nutritionist Patrick Holford, published 2018. Award: 2015: Finalist for 'Blogger of the Year' Medical Journalists' Association.
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  • Thanks for a great article, Jerome. And for this website – it’s just what we need to bring together those of like mind and spread the word in the UK.

  • Omg just noticed you are hooked up with Patrick holford what are you thinking of? Oh and ignore comment !

  • Excellent – I have e-scribed. Agree – we all need this to spread the word further.
    Best of luck with it.

  • Excellent article, and website. Will spread the word!

  • I would like to believe it is that simple, but is it? Cannot cancer cells get their energy from the available protein (gluconeogenesis). But then maybe it is easier with protein ingested than with what is already part of a muscle?

    • Editorial

      We can certainly turn protein into glucose and its one of the things that clinicians who work with low carb diets are very aware of. I’m afraid I don’t have detailed clinical knowledge myself but if you contact the site via email – see a contact section on the home page – I can send you some links to sits that would be better informed on those specifics

  • Jerome Burn “works mainly for the Daily Mail”.

    Is this the same Daily Mail that has a ‘daily health scare’? The one that peddles astrology, ‘The Bible Code’ and any alarmist health scare story going?

    If so perhaps this is good news as we can look forward to more reasoned articles such as the one above.

    I will keep reading (the blog not the Mail).

    Many thanks.

    • Editorial

      I am a jobbing journalist – the Mail health pages runs some good features and, I would argue, has a better record on picking up on issues such as the excessive use of statins, the problems with Avandia and gross over-use of antipsychotics than the rest of what was once called Fleet Street. Do keep reading. Promise no Bible Codes or astrology.

  • Nice summary – I thought for a page or two that you had overlooked Seyfried & Fine, but you got them.

    It’s worth mentioning that a ketogenic diet seems to be a generally worthwhile try, but is much less likely to work with prostate cancer than others. At least that is what I read (sorry, source, which was respectable, is forgotten, although I think Fine touched on that point).

    Looks like this should be a very useful site.

    • Editorial

      Thanks for the comment. You are right about low carb not being effective with prostate. It’s clear that there are a lot of uncertainties about the clinical application – largely because research funds have been shamefully hard to come by. There is a lot of clinical experience with using a ketotic diet on children with epilepsy that doesn’t respond to drugs but I don’t know how much of the is applicable to cancer. Early days yet

  • You are right. Moreover you may know that people with the Laron syndrome cannot develop cancer, no matter how poor diets they eat. They are short of something called Free Insulin Growth Factor ( IGF-1 ) which halts their growth at a certain age (which resumes if they get the IGF-1). We have both IGF-1 and a Binding protein that controls it, IGFBP-. As the name implies IGF-1 is stimulated by insulin, and high insulin – or insulin resistance – can hence be a problem.
    The binding Protein also reduces on high blood sugar, leaving more free IGF-1.

    This whole area of IGF-1 is another side of sugar rich diet that whnen combined with tumors dependency on sugar as you wrote seem to provide make sugar and blood sugar increasing foods a double cancer whammy.
    Indeed drug companies have on the back of this created drugs to balance IGF-1, with side effects and all. For my part I will use my 5 cents to cut out most of the carbs!

    • Editorial

      Yes the story about the Laron dwarves from Ecuador who don’t get diabetes or cancer is fascinating. I wrote about it in Chapter 6 of the book I wrote with Patrick Holford ’10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing’ and if anyone is interested in following it up in detail have a look at this: Sci Transl Med. 2011 Feb 16;3(70):70ra13.

  • and on the other side of the arguement, non-ketogenic diets have cured cancer patients…

    I guess it depends on which cancer your treating reading between the lines.

    Good article though, and one that would probably go down well on Peter Attia’s blog.

    I’ve no connecion with either, just read both, and now this one.

    • Editorial

      Thanks for the point about Attia’s blog I’m a great admirer of his clarity and grip on the biochemistry.

      Yes I think Ornish has published on low fat and cancer and then there has been a lot on the web recently from Dr Nicholas Gonzales a NY physician who has been treating cancer patients with diet for a long time. He has written a long piece – part of which you can find here - – which sets out his ideas.

      He makes two points: firstly that different people respond differently to different types of diet – seems reasonable – and that he was a friend and colleague of Atkins who confessed to him that the ketogenic doesn’t work for cancer and that he was giving up trying to treat it and would be concentrating on weight loss.
      Even so a proper evaluation of ketone approach and its variations would seem well worthwhile

      • Atkins may contain too much protein to preserve weight loss after the usual first 6 months of success. Blood sugar is then produced from excess proteins via gluconeogenesis, showing up as higher morning readings despite even “zero” carbs intake. This affects weight loss badly and it keeps insulin from falling to ideal values, probably causing end of the road also for cancer treatment considering IGF-1 etc..
        Try LCHF instead where proteins remain same or reduced and fats – natural fats – are increased. Lard, olive oil, coconut oil, butter and beef tallow are good fats. Omega 6 fats from vegetable oils are all inflammatory.
        Jimmy Moore broke stagnated weight loss turned to weight gain by reducing proteins drastically.

  • According to Seyfried and D’Agostino, Pedersen and Young it will work effectively against all kind of cancers as the Warburg effect is a common denominator. But when gone into a far state of destruction by the cancers it needs also probably a another treatment together with this diet (3BP?). But heavely calory restriction and no carbs other than very low sugar carbs like green leavy vegetables and a healthy amount of exercise (HIIT and HIT) will surely have a very strong impact on the disease. Seyfried is not excluding any type of cancer yet. Nor is Dr Young with het 3BP treatment.

  • Hello – great article, but if there is a sugar link to cancer growth, why don’t more diabetics get cancer? I tried to understand both this article and the previous one, but again some of it was a little confusing about the role of sugars/insulin on cancer growth. thanks Sue

    • Editorial

      Anyone else can give useful response on this. Diabetics are at raised risk for cancer, the very low carb ketosis diet looks promising as a supportive cancer treatment and there is genetic research showing that mutated gene for insulin growth factor causes dwarfism and a resistance to cancer.

  • There is some interesting data I have seen where Type 2 diabetics on Metformin/Glucophage actually have a reduced chance of getting cancer. One of the “benefits” of being type2!

    • Editorial

      As i understand it the reason metformin seems to cut cancer risk- raised for diabetics – is that unlike other diabetic medication it reduces insulin resistance rather than pushing up insulin production, which is a growth hormone. One of the drawbacks of metformin is that it cuts absorption of B12, so an alternative appraoch could be to try bringing down blood glucose – and so insulin – by following a low carb diet. Check out Dr David Unwin’s success in reducing both the weight of his diabetic patients and their drug intake in this way. Search for his name on the site

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