Cancer, Sugar and the Low Carbohydrate Diet

Cancer, Sugar and the Low Carbohydrate Diet post image

Cancer is a disease of civilization. It has been well established that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have any cancer, much less the epidemic of cancer that we have today. The relationship of our modern high sugar, high carbohydrate diet to cancer was studied and the conclusions of the researchers may interest you.

The study was published in the journal, Nutrition and Metabolism, October 2011. Researchers, Rainer Klement and Ulrike Kammerer conducted a comprehensive review of the literature involving dietary carbohydrates and their direct and indirect effect on cancer cells.

Low Carb Hypothesis

Over the last years, evidence has accumulated suggesting that by systematically reducing the amount of dietary carbohydrates (CHOs) one could suppress, or at least delay, the emergence of cancer, and that proliferation of already existing tumor cells could be slowed down.

Their hypothesis is supported by a lot of existing research that documents the association between modern chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome and diabetes and the risk of developing or dying from cancer.

There are four reasons for this association to cancer

1 — Most malignant cells depend on steady glucose availability in the blood for their energy. Cancer cells are not able to metabolize significant amounts of fatty acids or ketone bodies so they need sugar.

2 — High insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which is needed for the control of blood sugar levels, resulting from chronic ingestion of high carbohydrate meals (like the typical American diet, that is full of grains and sugars), can directly promote tumor cell proliferation via the insulin/IGF1 signaling pathway.

3 — Ketone bodies (ketone bodies are created from fats) that are elevated when insulin and blood glucose levels are low, have been found to negatively affect multiplication of different malignant cells in vitro. They have also been found to be unusable by tumor cells for metabolic demands. Additionally, a multitude of mouse models have shown anti-tumorigenic properties of very low carbohydrate-ketogenic diets.

4 — Many cancer patients also exhibit dysregulated glucose metabolism which presents as insulin resistance.

They took the logical approach

The researchers compared individuals that get cancer with those that do not. They found cancer to be rare amongst uncivilized hunter-gatherer societies.

One main reason is…

the switch from the “caveman’s diet” consisting of fat, meat and only occasionally roots, berries and other sources of carbohydrate (CHO) to a nutrition dominated by easily digestible CHOs derived mainly from grains as staple food would have occurred too recently to induce major adoptions in our genes encoding the metabolic pathways. This is even more the case for the changes that occurred over the past 100 years, in particular the switch from labor in the field to a sedentary lifestyle and an increase in the consumption of easily digestible CHOs with high glycemic indices (GIs), leading to diseases of civilization that are strongly associated with the so-called Western way of life.

Sugar intake is linked to modern diseases

High sugar intakes have definitely been associated and  linked with many disease states.

Metabolic syndrome: Way back in 2004 the Journal of American Cardiology published Weinberg’s conclusion that,

This diet [the high carb/low fat diet recommended by medical and government organizations] can no longer be defended by appeal to the authority of prestigious medical organizations or by rejecting clinical experience and a growing medical literature suggesting that the much-maligned low-carbohydrate-high-protein diet may have a salutary effect on the epidemics in question.

Alzheimer’s disease: Published in 2004 in the Journal of Medical Hypotheses, Henderson concluded that,

A change in diet emphasizing decreasing dietary carbohydrates and increasing essential fatty acids (EFA) may effectively prevent AD. Interventions that restore lipid homeostasis may treat the disease, including drugs that increase fatty acid metabolism, EFA repletion therapy, and ketone body treatment.

Cataract and macula degeneration: Published in 2006 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Chiu et al concluded that,

Our results suggest that dietary GI [glycemic index] may be an independent risk factor for ARM [age related maculopathy].

Gout: Published in 2000 in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, Dessein et al found that insulin resistance has been increasingly implicated in the pathogenesis of gout. They concluded that,

The results suggest that weight reduction associated with a change in proportional macronutrient intake, as recently recommended in IR [insulin resistance], is beneficial, reducing the SU [serum uric acid] levels and dyslipidaemia in gout. Current dietary recommendations for gout may need re-evaluation.

People with these diseases have an increased risk of cancer

Gout increases the risk of cancer. Metabolic syndrome increases the risk of cancer. Age related macular degeneration increases the risk of cancer. Additionally, many other diseases of modern culture increase the risk of cancer.

These diseases are all related to high sugar intake. It clearly begs the question of whether or not high carbohydrate diets support cancer cell growth and proliferation.

Early connection of cancer to sugar

As early as 1921, it was observed that cancer cells utilize sugar much faster than normal cells. In 1923, Otto Warburg observed that tumor cells would convert glucose to lactate in the presence of oxygen (aerobic glycolysis) — in sharp contrast to normal cells that would have a decreased uptake of glucose and decreased production of lactate in the presence of oxygen.

Benefit of the ketogenic diet

Most malignant cells lack key mitochondrial enzymes necessary for conversion of ketone bodies and fatty acids to ATP. The researchers in this study published in the British Journal of Cancer in 1983, concluded that,

tumours of non-hepatic tissues may be unable to metabolize ketone-bodies and suggest a therapeutic strategy for selective starvation of the tumour by dietary modification.

Other researchers have suggested using a high fat, ketogenic (80% fat) diet in cancer. The ketogenic diet has been successfully used in childhood epilepsy, since the 1920’2. The ketogenic diet has also been used in adult epilepsy and in treating obesity.

The ketogenic diet and inflammation

It has been well established that inflammation drives tumor growth. Even moderate carbohydrate restriction can reduce markers of chronic inflammation that are associated with atherosclerosis and type II diabetes — both of which are linked to chronic inflammation.

Grains are associated with inflammation

According to the authors of this study, grains can induce inflammation in susceptible individuals due to their content of omega-6 fatty acids, lectins and gluten . In particular gluten might play a key role in the pathogenesis of auto-immune and inflammatory disorders and some malignant diseases. In the small intestine, gluten triggers the release of zonulin, a protein that regulates the tight junctions between epithelial cells and therefore intestinal, but also blood-brain barrier function.

Recent evidence suggests that overstimulation of zonulin in susceptible individuals could dysregulate intercellular communication promoting tumorigenesis at specific organ sites .

They go on to state the Paleolithic style diets, which remove grains from the diet, have been shown to improve glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors more effectively than typically recommended low-fat diets rich in whole grains.

Actual human studies

There have not been a lot of clinical studies using the ketogenic diet in cancer patients until recently. However, the few that are in progress or that have been done, have shown a lot of promise in spite of the fact that these patients will lose weight on this diet — which is generally not in the best interest of a patient with cancer.

What about the prevention of cancer?

A study recently published in Cancer Research in 2011 reported that NOP mice, which normally have a 70 – 80% chance of developing breast cancer over their lifetime due to genetic mutations, stayed tumor-free at 1 year of age when their calories from carbohydrates were limited to 15%. The mice whose diet was 55% carbs developed tumors.The researchers concluded that,

our findings offer a compelling preclinical illustration of the ability of a low CHO diet in not only restricting weight gain but also cancer development and progression.


The effects of carbohydrates, sugars and grains on tumor growth has been established. Clearly, a low carbohydrate diet — the ketogenic diet is a tool that should be considered in cancer patients because of the many associations with better outcomes.

The restricted carbohydrate diet may also be effective in reducing incidences of metabolic syndrome, and other modern diseases.

Go grain-free

A grain-free diet has been used to improve many conditions.

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Leave a Comment

  • Jen September 21, 2012, 8:46 am

    Sent this info to my mom. She sent me some study (supposedly from John’s Hopkins) stating that cancer patients should remove only artificial sweeteners. I knew it was bogus when she sent it to me because it was one of those ‘forwards’ with no documentation. Thanks for the well-documented info that I can forward on.

  • Anne @ Authentic Simplicity September 23, 2012, 11:19 pm

    Eliminating sugar from a diet will definitely improve one’s health significantly! Thanks for linking up to Healthy 2day Wednesday!

  • Kim Ward September 25, 2012, 11:07 am

    I have a question…..have been doing a lot of reading and my doctor advised me to go on the blood-type diet (I am A-) and I seem to do much better on this, but it advises soy, beans, fish and grains and not a lot of meat….also am dealing with Hashimoto’s and have managed to lower antibodies from 12,000 range to 5,000 in last year or so by eliminating gluten, dairy and soy… question – would I have access to be able to ask you questions about certain recipes and substitutions??? The blood-type diet says that coconut is an avoid for me and have found I don’t do well with the coconut flour – major intestinal distress!!! Sorry, don’t mean to be so complicated. Love your blog! Sincerely, Kim Ward

    • Jill September 25, 2012, 12:01 pm

      Hi Kim,
      I would be happy to help you with substitutions as best I can. Avoiding soy is not a problem as there are no soy ingredients at all (it is not good unless traditionally fermented). However, I would not know how to substitute other grains… being grain-free an all.


  • amber September 25, 2012, 2:41 pm

    Hi Jill,

    This research is astounding.

    Over the course of 9 years I have been experimenting with various foods and diets to help my body achieve a neutral state. I keep telling myself…is this possible? I did not thrive on the SCD. I became very ill. Turns out I cannot eat nuts in high quantities even if they are soaked, or beans or eat a lot of coconut.

    Wish I had all the answers.

    I do find it interesting that a diet comprised of 15% carbohydrates depressed tumor growth, rather did not elicit growth, and the 55% did. Wow!

    Thanks for sharing this interesting article. I will be featuring on AFW this week.

    Be Well,

  • Jill September 25, 2012, 2:44 pm

    Hi Amber,
    Thanks! Your comments are always interesting!

  • Shannon @ Enjoying Gluten-Free Life September 26, 2012, 12:02 pm

    Great post! An aside to Amber, she can do the SCD without nuts, beans or much coconut.

  • Doubting Thomas September 26, 2012, 1:17 pm

    Can you back up this statement with research: “It has been well established that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have any cancer”?

  • Theresa ~ SCD Griddle September 28, 2012, 3:36 pm

    Really interesting! I continue to learn and learn about nutrition by reading blog posts like these.
    Thank you!
    Theresa ~SCD Griddle

  • Angela S. September 30, 2012, 2:16 pm

    We can certainly verify that this way of eating WORKS for battling cancer. My husband was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma – very fast tumor growing cancer. We chose to try a gluten-free, sugar-free & organic diet change before going to a more toxic, chemo. In less than 3 months the tumors stopped growing and NO new growths. The oncologist was speechless and wanted to see the diet we were on. Not a diet, just a healthy eating style. Oh, and after 1 1/2 years he has never had chemo or drugs.

    • Jill September 30, 2012, 3:07 pm

      Hi Angela,
      That’s an amazing story! So happy for you — it takes a lot of courage to turn away from conventional treatments and doctors in situations like yours. I commend you!

    • Lyza@ Chic Shades of Green October 1, 2012, 10:46 pm

      That’s incredible! Good for you, and for your husband. I’ve always wondered what I would do in a situation like that. You guys were very brave.

      Chic Shade of Green

  • Judy@Savoring Today October 1, 2012, 7:21 pm

    Another good, informative article, Jill. Keep up the good work and spreading the word, sugar is not our friend. Thanks for sharing on Hearth & Soul Hop. 🙂

  • Lyza@ Chic Shades of Green October 1, 2012, 10:40 pm

    Wow, your research here is amazing. I came over to read it because I’m working on a sugar post (slowly) and your title grabbed my attention. I would love to link to this article on a future post of mine.

    With the encouragement of a friend and all the articles of yours that I have read, I have stopped eating grains as of a week ago. I’m ready for a diet overhaul!

    Thanks for all your great research on this subject. It’s encouraging to think that we can reverse any past diet mistakes. No more listening to mainstream ideas for me!

    • Lyza@ Chic Shades of Green October 1, 2012, 10:41 pm

      By the way I shared this on twitter and Facebook. It’s so important for people to read!

      • Jill October 2, 2012, 6:16 am

        Hi Lyza,
        Thanks for for your support! Good luck with going grain-free. Let me know how it goes!

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  • Daniel March 2, 2016, 12:08 am

    Hi Jill

    On a no grain diet, is it possible that one may reach high levels of uric acid from your experience? As I’ve recently switched over to no grain (SCD diet), and would like to know your opinion.

    • Jill March 2, 2016, 10:27 am

      Hi Daniel,
      I have not had any problems with high uric acid in people on SCD. However that is not something that is usually tested.