Being Well

Ketogenic Diet and Cancer: Nutrition Options During Treatment

Will a ketogenic diet suit you during cancer treatment? There are many factors to consider.

You’ve heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” For hundreds of years, people have recognized the opportunity to use food as a way to prevent and treat certain health conditions. During cancer treatment, patients certainly want their food to increase energy and lead to positive outcomes, and will seek out different nutrition options during treatment, like the ketogenic diet. Here’s what you need to know about a ketogenic diet and cancer.

What Is a Ketogenic Diet?

You may have already heard about a ketogenic, or keto, diet thanks to a wave of New Year’s resolutions. “The keto diet is essentially a very low carb, high fat diet,” said Carole Havrila, a registered dietitian and certified oncology specialist at UVA Cancer Center. “It can lead to weight loss, which has made it more popular over the past few years.”

Is There a Link Between a Ketogenic Diet and Cancer Treatment?

There has been some research on the effect of a keto diet in regards to cancer growth. A study published in Frontiers in Nutrition noted there has been some animal studies that demonstrate the potential for a ketogenic diet to slow tumor growth, specifically in brain cancer. “It is important to note that while the results from these studies have been interesting and somewhat encouraging, a keto diet does have drawbacks,” cautioned Havrila.

Havrila warned of the emotional and physical side effects that a ketogenic diet can cause. “People who eat a ketogenic diet can feel hungry, have significant fatigue, experience constipation or get headaches due to low blood sugar,” she said. In fact, these are just a few potential side effects of this restrictive diet, which can increase in severity during the stress of cancer treatment.

“I think it is crucial for patients to be in a good place emotionally and psychologically before and during treatment,” noted Havrila. “If a very restrictive diet will upset this mental fortitude, it may not be worth it.”

Should I Start a Ketogenic Diet?

Beginning a new diet or nutrition regimen during cancer treatment can feel overwhelming, and you shouldn’t go at it alone. “I highly recommend working with an oncology dietitian and your oncologist before making any major nutrition changes,” advised Havrila. Your dietitian can give you diet recommendations based on your specific situation and work with you as your appetite ebbs and flows during treatment. Further, Havrila recommended sticking with evidence-based research for nutrition plans, referencing the American Institute for Cancer Research as her go-to site for patients.

What Are Other Options for Eating During Treatment?

Your diet is an important component of your treatment plan, and what you eat can prevent or protect yourself from cancer. Havrila recommended a diet that is high in plant materials. “Red meat and processed meat has been linked to cancer,” said Havrila. “I recommend a diet rich in healthy sources of fats, plenty of plants and lean meats.” This type of diet can decrease inflammation in the body and can be protective against cancer and other diseases.

Cancer treatment can be stressful and exhausting. Your body will be working hard to cope, and you may not find a restrictive diet, like keto, to be comforting or helpful. Instead, talk to your doctor and dietitian about what you can eat that will keep you healthy and energetic during this challenging time.

Nutrition is essential during cancer treatment. UVA's registered dietitians can help you determine what type of diet might work best for you.

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Haley Burress
Haley Burress