Posted on: April 29, 2019 at 5:29 pm
Last updated: May 2, 2019 at 11:26 am

No matter which side of the fence you’re on when it comes to the ketogenic diet, recent groundbreaking studies are starting to point out that it’s likely here to stay, but not for reasons you might expect. [1]


A strict keto diet provides up to 90% of a person’s daily calories from fats and limits the intake of carbohydrates (including fruits and starchy vegetables) to less than 20 grams per day. As glucose becomes unavailable, the body is forced to burn fat that’s converted to ketones and then used by the brain and many other tissues in the body for fuel and energy. [2]

So, what does all of this have to do with cancer?



The discovery of phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase (PI3 kinase or PI3K), an enzyme involved in cell functioning including growth, survival, and proliferation has changed our understanding of the connection between sugar, insulin, and cancer. PI3K has often been dubbed as the “the master switch for cancer”.

This breakthrough was made by American cell biologist and biochemist, Dr. Lewis Cantley who is now the Director of the Cancer Center of Weill Cornell Medical College. What Dr. Cantley and his team discovered in the years after is that mutations in the PI3K gene could be implicated in nearly 80% of all cancers including those of the breast, brain, and bladder. [3] [4]


And what activates these mutations and allows for tumors to grow?

Sugar and insulin.

This has led to the development of many new cancer drugs targeting the PI3K pathway, but those have been met with some surprises. Despite the drugs being able to inhibit PI3K, they were driving insulin levels up. How?

The drugs were not only starving the tumors but were also signaling the liver that the entire body was in starvation mode. Since the liver stores the extra glucose in the form of glycogen, it was continuously releasing glucose in an attempt to provide energy to the body. When the liver releases glucose, the pancreas needs to release more insulin and the presence of insulin was triggering the tumors to continue to grow. Some of the patients had even become diabetic as a result.[3]


The average American consumes 126 grams or almost 32 teaspoons of sugar per day while the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that this is limited to no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of sugar for men. [5] [6]

In an article published by Medical Express, Dr. Cantley states that “Our preclinical research suggests that if somewhere in your body you have one of these PI3K mutations and you eat a lot of rapid-release carbohydrates, every time your insulin goes up, it will drive the growth of a tumor. The evidence really suggests that if you have cancer, the sugar you’re eating may be making it grow faster.” [3]

We have long known that many cancer cells prefer glucose as their source of fuel, so limiting the intake of glucose in the diet will limit the ability of cancer to feed and grow. And, this, in turn, will give the person’s immune system a chance to react. [7]

So, Dr. Cantley’s and his team wanted to test just that. What if in combination with the PI3K inhibiting drugs, they would put patients on a ketogenic diet?


A series of research studies on mice between 2016 and 2018 showed that PI3K inhibiting drugs in combination with a ketogenic diet were able to shrink tumor size more than the drug or diet alone. [8]

Now, this exciting research is moving to clinical trials in humans starting with endometrial cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma.

But in an article published in the New York Times by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Oncologist working with Dr. Catley, he warns of using the ketogenic diet as a treatment on its own: [9]

“The experiments on mice also warned us of an important pitfall of such an approach. While the “drug plus diet” model worked on experimental mouse and human cancers, the ketogenic diet had a limited effect by itself. For some cancers in the mouse models, the keto diet alone kept the tumor growth at bay. But for others, like some leukemias implanted into mice, the diet alone accelerated cancer, while the drug-plus-diet approach slowed it down.”

So, never attempt a treatment on your own and make sure to speak to a qualified medical professional before attempting the ketogenic diet as it’s important to be monitored to decrease the likelihood of unpleasant side effects.

While human trials are not complete and more research needs to be carried out so we can completely understand the role of the ketogenic diet in cancer treatment as well as the effects of glucose and insulin on tumor growth, it’s exciting times to come. In the meantime, we could all benefit from reducing refined and added sugars from our diet, and opt for more whole fresh foods.

Mirna Sharafeddine, B.Sc., R.H.N.
Co-Founder, Naughty Nutrition
Having gone through her own health issues and struggling with yo-yo dieting for many years, inspired Mirna to focus on helping her clients break free from the diet cycle and fall back in love with the food on their plate. With a balanced and mindful approach to nutrition, she helps them create a realistic and individualized health plan to reach their health goals.

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