What Feeds Cancer: A Closer Look at Fats and the Ketogenic Diet

Posted on Feb 1, 2017 in Research

Many of my patients ask questions about cancer as a metabolic disease. Perhaps you’ve read that “sugar feeds cancer”, or have learned of the Warburg effect. In the next few newsletters, I’ll be digging deeper into the complex story of cancer as a metabolic disease.
Some of my colleagues recommend a ketogenic diet for cancer patients. They reason that if cancer cells eat sugar, then feeding protein and fat might be a better choice.
The ketogenic diet is mostly fat with moderate protein and very little sugar and starch. It’s tough to follow, and it can be difficult to get complete nutrition. The diet was developed for kids with epilepsy. There’s some clinical research to indicate benefit in the brain tumor glioblastoma [1], with very little data on other cancer types.
Surprisingly, though, it appears that a very high fat diet may feed cancer as well. Fat increases a protein that regulates cancer metastasis — CD36. In people, CD36-expressing cancers tend to be more aggressive and likely to spread. A high fat diet boost the metastatic-promoting effects of CD36 in cells and mice.[2]
Of course, mice and cells aren’t people. If clinical trials (in tumors other than glioblastoma) showed that a ketogenic diet helped cancer survivors live longer, then I’d be all for it. However, if we’re comparing cell studies with benefit to cell studies with harm, then I advise caution.