NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) — The keto diet is a popular approach for weight loss, and there is evidence that the ultra low-carb diet may be effective in helping to treat cancer, as well.

The general rule of thumb for a keto diet is a maximum of 20 grams of carbohydrate daily, or about 5 percent of total calories.

Keto diets for cancer treatment are often lower, ranging from 5 percent to as low as 0.1 percent carb.  

The theory behind the keto diet as a treatment for cancer starts with the premise that our cells metabolize sugar for energy, so restricting sugar, or glucose, in theory may help to ‘starve’ cancer cells.

Research suggests that a keto diet may serve as a complementary approach to standard cancer therapies.

The science behind the keto diet and cancer treatment

Dr. Lewis Cantley, Director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College is a Professor of Cancer Biology in Medicine and a leading cancer researcher.

Dr. Cantley notes that a reduction in blood sugar is just one of at least 5 different ways that the keto diet may be effective in combatting cancer:

  • Reduced blood glucose levels means a reduction in the fuel source for cancer cells.
  • Reduced insulin levels. Insulin is an anabolic hormone – this means that it makes cells grow, including cancer cells.  So lower insulin levels can mean slower tumor growth.
  • Lower levels of IGF-1. Insulin-like growth factor 1 is a hormone that is a protein growth signal for cancer. A lower carb diet means lower levels of insulin, which means less IGF-1 and therefore potential for reduced cancer risk and reduced tumor growth.
  • Lower the tumor’s ability to produce VEG-F. Vascular endothelial growth factor is a protein that is involved in the growth of blood vessels to supply food and oxygen to tumors. Interfering with VEG-F means an interruption in the tumor blood supply.
  • Less visceral fat. This is the abdominal fat deep below the skin; high amounts are linked to a host of health issues, including cancers like colorectal, post-menopausal breast cancer, pancreatic, uterine and esophageal cancer. Less visceral fat inherently lowers our risk for these types of cancers.

Incorporating the keto diet as part of cancer therapy

Let’s be very clear: approaches like keto diet are not intended to replace traditional therapies but may be able to accompany them. While conventional treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are still the primary methods of treating tumors, science is exploring complementary treatments that may also help slow or stop the growth of cancer cells.

If you’re considering the keto diet or any other type of holistic, adjunct approach, always be open with your physician, registered dietitian and your entire oncology care team.

Ultimately, the best approach is to find a long-term plan that’s sustainable – not a ‘diet’ specifically. The keto diet may not be for you, but many of us can still benefit from dialing back our carbs and sugars. And we don’t have to strive for perfection; even the most moderate nutritional improvements can boost our whole-body wellness.

Want more?

  • Listen to Molly’s podcast about Keto + Cancer with cancer researcher Lew Cantley. Link here.
  • Read Molly’s article, Keto Diet and Cancer: What’s the Latest Research? link here.


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Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans, and founder of Ochsner Eat Fit nonprofit restaurant initiative. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD. See more of Molly’s articles + TV segments at, and sign up for Eat Fit Wellness Bites weekly newsletter, here.

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