Posted on: May 28, 2019 at 11:28 pm

Most people are already aware of the importance of diet for preventing or managing conditions like diabetes, liver disease, digestive issues, and cardiovascular disease. But an increasing number of people will now receive advice from their medical care providers to pay close attention to their diets to help prevent or help treat certain types of cancer.

How familiar are you with the relationship between cancer cells and sugar, the keto diet, the vegan diet, or insulin?

4 Essential Facts vs. Myths About Diet & Cancer

Fact: Cancer cells behave differently than healthy cells.

Cancer cells reproduce faster and more irregularly than regular cells. Science educator George Zaidan explains the key differences in this 3-minute video:



Because of their fast growth, cancer cells are heavily influenced by sugar and insulin. One way a healthy body controls elevated blood sugars is with insulin, which is also a growth factor. So a high-sugar diet will lead to more insulin production, which in turn creates an environment that promotes the rapid growth of cancer cells. Not all, but many types of cancer cells will also develop more insulin receptors than healthy cells so they can take advantage of the insulin available in their environment.

As PhD, Barbara Gower explains, “High-glucose diets result in high insulin, which stimulates cancer growth.” (Healthline)

To understand more about insulin, sugar, and cancer cells, check out Nadia Kumentas, ND’s explanation.

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Myth: It’s possible to starve cancer cells.

You can’t “feed” or “starve” cancer cells specifically with your diet choices, however, your diet can help to create an environment that promotes or inhibits cancer cell growth.

Jason Locasale, a cancer biologist at Duke University explains, “For a long time, the prevailing thought was that altered metabolism in cancer cells was the result of genes and mutations that determined metabolism. Now, as we know, it’s a complex interaction of environment and genes, and one of the major factors at play is nutrition.” (The Atlantic)

The scientific community has lately been very interested in how a low-sugar diet like the ketogenic diet influences cancer cells.

Wait, what is the ketogenic diet? “The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that shares many similarities with the Atkins and low-carb diets. It involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and replacing it with fat. This reduction in carbs puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis.
When this happens, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for energy. It also turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can supply energy for the brain. Ketogenic diets can cause massive reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels. This, along with the increased ketones, has numerous health benefits.”
Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Columbia University researcher, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee and a team of scientists reported their learnings in a paper in NatureThey found that at least one type of chemotherapy treatment can be more effective when used in combination with the ketogenic diet. This, they explained, was likely due to the lower insulin levels associated with a low-sugar diet. (Nature)

Myth: All cancer cells respond to the ketogenic diet in the same way.

It’s tempting to think of the ketogenic diet and other low-carb, low-sugar diets as a simple solution for all cancer cases. But the reality is not so straightforward.


A team of researchers recently summarized in the journal Science Signaling that “Only some cancer cells are acutely sensitive to glucose withdrawal, and the underlying mechanism of this selective sensitivity is unclear.”

What’s more, the keto diet on its own doesn’t necessarily have the same positive impact as it does when combined with other treatments.

Dr. Mukherjee warns, 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.”(New York Times)

The relationship between sugar and cancer cells can be even further complicated by the presence or absence of a PI3K mutation. In an article published by Medical Express, Dr. Lewis Cantley explains 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.” (Medical Xpress).

But Mirna Sharafeddine, B.Sc., R.H.N. elegantly explains how drugs meant to target PI3K receptors have unexpectedly caused the liver to produce more glycogen and create a supportive environment for cancer cell growth, rather than the intended consequence. You can learn more about PI3K, sugar, and cancer here.


Fact: Amino acids can affect cancer cell growth and behavior.

It’s not just sugar intake that impacts whether your body is a good or bad environment for cancer cell growth. Research points to certain the restriction of certain amino acids as being helpful to slow down cancer growth.

James Hamblin, MD summarizes in an article in The Atlantic that reducing dietary intake of methionine, an amino acid found abundantly in eggs, fish, and meat (though it’s found in virtually all protein sources), has been linked to better success with anti-tumor treatments. While healthy cells can recycle their own methionine from homocysteine, most cancerous cells cannot, and require outside sources from your diet to survive.

In fact, you’ve likely heard of the low-methionine diet already: it’s a vegan diet.

Your best approach for designing a healthy diet that works for your body and helps to prevent cancer or complements other cancer treatments is to book an appointment with your medical care provider, who can guide you through the details specific for you.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.

Emese Graham
Health Expert
Emese believes women's health, mental health, and spiritual health really matter, so she jumps at the chance to bring those conversations to light. In her spare time, Emese enjoys finding challenging workout videos on Youtube (because gyms are hard for introverts), and she's all about getting creative in the kitchen and making recipes a little different every time - who needs measuring cups?

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