The low carb, high-fat ketogenic diet has been shown to accelerate weight loss, enhance performance for endurance athletes and manage diseases such as epilepsy, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and cancer.
The ketogenic diet has a variety of health benefits that extend far beyond its popular application as a weight loss tool, cancer scientist Dr. Dominic D'Agostino said on a podcast with Nourish Balance Thrive.
For the past four years, D'Agostino's lab has researched the use of the ketogenic diet to prevent epileptic seizures and "starve" cancer. He found the low carb, high-fat diet can protect brain health for epilepsy patients and for people who experience traumatic brain injury, such as football players who suffer concussions.
Keto Diet Protects the Brain
"The ketogenic diet seems to work for a variety of different seizure types, so I like to say it's neuroprotective," said D'Agostino, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine in the department of molecular pharmacology and physiology.
He added: "Its neuroprotective properties are linked to its ability to supply ketones as a form of energy to the brain."
Since 2007, D'Agostino has worked with the Office of Naval Research to assist the Navy SEALs by developing ketogenic diet strategies to protect them from the undersea environment. He told Examiner the ketogenic diet prevented Navy SEALs from getting seizures during rigorous underwater training exercises.
The ketogenic diet has also been shown to prevent and even reverse multiple sclerosis. Dr. Terry Wahls, a professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, reversed her multiple sclerosis by following a ketogenic-style Paleo diet.
Wahls, a physician who was diagnosed with MS in 2000, has managed her multiple sclerosis for the past seven years with her own personalized ketogenic-style Paleo diet, which she detailed in her bestseller, "The Wahls Protocol."
Dr. Wahls said her MS improved dramatically — without drugs — after she switched to a ketogenic-style Paleo diet. “The results stunned my physician, my family and me," she said. "Within a year, I was able to walk through the hospital without a cane and even complete an 18-mile bicycle tour."
Wahls' dramatic story inspired Chad Vaccarino of the duo A Great Big World to treat his multiple sclerosis with a similar low carb, high-fat Paleo diet. These results aren't surprising to Dr. Eric Westman, co-author of Keto Clarity, who said ketosis has proven health benefits.
The low carb ketogenic and Paleo diets have become mainstream after celebrities such as LeBron James (who lost 25 pounds in 67 days) touted the weight loss benefits of their low-carb diets, but D'Agostino's research suggests the ketogenic diet can also starve cancer. This is because cancer cells thrive on sugar and cannot survive on ketones.
"When we restrict carbs in our diet, we can prevent pro-inflammatory spikes in blood glucose and blood insulin," D'Agostino told Examiner. "Suppression of blood glucose and insulin spikes can be very helpful when managing many chronic diseases."
We're Only as Healthy as Our Mitochondria
According to Dr. D'Agostino, we are only as healthy as our mitochondria, which are the power sources of all our cells, so if we keep our mitochondria healthy, we can stall the onset of cancer and other age-related chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer's and heart disease.
An effective way to inhibit the growth of cancer cells is to follow a ketogenic diet, he said. "Most cancer scientists have historically thought cancer was a genetic disease, but only five to 10 percent of cancer is hereditary," said D'Agostino, who has a Ph.D. in physiology and neuroscience.
D'Agostino's research showed ketogenic diet therapy prolongs survival in mice with aggressive metastatic cancer. These same anti-cancer properties have also been observed in human cancer patients and reported in published studies.
Cancer Is a Metabolic Disease That Can Be Treated With Keto
D'Agostino's colleague, Dr. Thomas Seyfried of Boston College, told Examiner the ketogenic diet can replace chemotherapy and radiation for many cancers.
Seyfried's decades of research indicate that cancer is a metabolic — not a genetic — disease. And the best way to treat a metabolic disorder is through diet, not by pumping a patient full of toxic radiation, he said.
The problem with the traditional treatment of cancer, said Seyfried, is that the cancer community has approached it as a genetic disease, so much of the research efforts have gone into gene-focused studies, which he says does not address the root of the problem.
Dr. Seyfried, widely considered the godfather of the nutritional treatment of cancer, joins a growing number of researchers who say the ketogenic diet can treat many forms of cancer.
This is because nearly all the healthy cells in our body have the metabolic flexibility to use fat, glucose and ketones to survive, but cancer cells lack this metabolic flexibility and require large amounts of glucose and cannot survive on ketones. So by limiting carbohydrates (as the keto diet does) we can reduce glucose and insulin, and thus restrict the primary fuel for cancer cell growth.
While this idea may sound new, scientists have been aware of this for the past 80 years. This phenomenon was first observed in the 1920s by German physiologist Otto Warburg, who won a Nobel Prize in 1931 for discovering that cancer cells have defective mitochondria and thrive on sugar.
The “Warburg effect” can be exploited by the ketogenic diet, but so far this approach has not been used to fight cancer. However, the tide may soon be turning. Today, there are about a dozen studies that are investigating the use of the ketogenic diet to manage all kinds of cancer.
Thomas Seyfried says the time has come for the medical community to publicly acknowledge the viability of the ketogenic diet as an inexpensive, non-toxic way to treat cancer.
"The standard of care has been an abysmal failure for cancer," said Seyfried. "The ketogenic diet may one day replace the standard of care for most cancers."