Cancer – go Vegagenic?

There are two apparently diametric nutritional approaches to cancer treatment. One is a high fat and usually high meat low carb ‘ketogenic’ diet designed to starve cancer cells of sugar. The other is a no meat, largely vegan diet with a high intake of organic vegetables, fruits and their juices. If facing cancer these apparently opposite approaches can foster confusion. But does it have to be either or?

There are two apparently diametric nutritional approaches to cancer treatment. One is a high fat and usually high meat low carb ‘ketogenic’ diet designed to starve cancer cells of sugar. The other is a no-meat, largely vegan diet with a high intake of organic vegetables, fruits and their juices, designed to flood the body with salvestrols, antioxidants, polyphenols and other naturally occurring anti-cancer compounds found in plant foods. Gerson therapy , which cites thousands of remarkable cancer cures, is a case in point, although its efficacy has been questioned.

If facing cancer these apparently opposite approaches can foster confusion. But does it have to be either or? Both approaches have the same ultimate aim – to make the environment around cancer cells impossible for them to survive, grow or spread.

The essential idea is that cancer cells are cells with serious boundary issues. They also produce too much lactic acid and other substances that weaken surrounding tissue, making it easier for them to spread. This is because they switch to a primitive way of making energy, anaerobic metabolism, that makes them grow an invade their neighbours. Although a cancer cell can theoretically revert to a healthy cell, and switch back to aerobic metabolism, this is extremely rare and difficult, so the focus on these approaches is to make it impossible for cancer cells to survive.


One of books I most enjoyed was Travis Christofferson’s ‘Tripping Over the Truth’. He explains that ‘The ketogenic diet is unique among cancer therapies in that it affects healthy cells and cancer cells very differently. Cancer cells have difficulty using ketones (an alternative fuel derived from fats) and so become stressed when the body begins making them, while normal cells are actually energized by the ketogenic diet.’ As one senior researcher observes: ‘Ketones have a strange ability to make healthy cells healthier and cancer cells weaker.’

Another most valuable contribution of a ketogenic approach is reducing side effects. Being on the ketogenic diet for several days before and after chemotherapy has been shown to diminish ‘every one of the 14 most common chemotherapy related side-effects’, he says.

Going ketogenic can damage cancer cells because not only are they getting less glucose in the blood but their messed up mitochondria can’t run on ketones. So the logic behind the ketogenic diet as a cancer therapy is seductively intuitive: remove the cancer cells preferred source of fuel and replace it with a fuel it has really difficulty burning. Simple.

It works in animals. A recent review of studies ‘indicate that a ketogenic diet had a beneficial effect on [reducing] tumor growth and survival time. Tumor types were included pancreatic, prostate, gastric, colon, brain, neuroblastoma and lung cancers.’

However, it’s way to soon to say it’s the way to go for all cancers and we’re a way off robust human trials. Probably by a quirk of history and some adventurous pioneers who had nothing to lose, the evidence for its effectiveness is strongest for a hard to treat type of brain cancer – neurogliomas – since brain cells are high glucose burners, as are immune cells. So its likely be good for leukemias too. A systematic review concludes ‘while clinical evidence is still limited in this evolving field, increasing numbers of ongoing clinical trials suggest that ketogenic diet is emerging as a potential therapeutic option and might be combinable with existing anti-neoplastic treatments for malignant glioma.’

But there might be cancer cells that love ketones. An animal study on melanomas showed no effect from a ketogenic diet. In fact, cancer cells grew. There is a debate regarding prostate cancer as well, but all of these cancers have, like the melanomas, genetically diverse types, some of which may tolerate ketosis better than others. This is a whole new territory and one to explore with caution.


The Atkins diet, high in meat and dairy products, was the first popular ketogenic diet. The irony here is that you’re trying to get lots of saturated, and medium chain triglycerides to convert into ketones and you need high fat meat and dairy products to achieve this. Wild meat is not naturally high in fat – wild animals only have 5% of their bodyweight as fat. – but modern meat is. Modern animals, even if organic, are made fat by feeding them carbs such as corn and limiting exercise.

Also, both processed and red meat, and ANY meat that is cured or made crispy is introducing known carcinogens . Also, too much protein is itself a growth promoter – and that includes cancer cells. Lower protein intakes are associated with reduced cancer incidence in those under age 65 and lower IGF-1 levels. The original Atkins and Banting diet and ‘paleo’ diets run this risk. The fact is that higher protein dairy products and high animal protein diets can promote cancer cell growth through stimulating IGF-1 and mTOR. These are key growth signallers in the body – and if you’re growing you’re not repairing. The key to anti-ageing is repair and maintenance, not growth. So, this kind of ketogenic diet might be three steps forward two steps back.

On the other hand, you could go ketogenic relying primarily on non-meat sources of fat and protein, while limiting protein. It’s gets harder is you’re a vegan but, if not, the way to go is what I call the Fishkins diet. The goal here is also to consume foods that are both anti-cancer by virtue of their nutritious ingredients, low in carbs and high in healthy fats.

By eating clean oily fish, avocadoes, coconut oil, and high quality polyphenol rich olive oil, plus the right nuts (pecan, brazil, macadamia, walnut and chia are the best) as your fuel source you can achieve ketosis without eating any meat or dairy products.

Each of these foods, in their own right, have anti-cancer properties. Recent research on olive oil has identified a key component that may inhibit the formation of cancer cells in the brain, while consuming 28 grams of nuts a day reduces risk of cancer by 15%, according to a meta-analysis of twenty studies. A study in Iceland found that women who consumed 4 servings of fish a week in early life had half the risk of developing breast cancer in mid-life. Also, avocados contain a compound called defensin that may encourage breast cancer cells to self-destruct.

In addition, by eating loads of vegetables high in antioxidants and polyphenols you achieve the advantages of a salvestrol rich diet. But there are a few hi carb vegetables you need to avoid or minimise such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots. The best veg are cruciferous veg such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, also kale, asparagus, artichokes, spinach, rocket, watercress and beans such as runner beans, broad beans and peas, as well as garlic and red onions.

If you’ve stayed below the generally advised 50g carb line which could interfere with ketosis then there’s room for the higher vegetable protein, lower carb foods such as tofu, tempeh and quinoa, with a little room for berries – blueberries and blackberries being the best.

You also want lots of turmeric, ginger, chilli, oregano, basil, sage, thyme, cinnamon and mint which are high in salvestrols.

But what about treats? Another good fat  with anti-cancer properties is cacao butter. My GLTY chocolate , as well as providing cacao butter, and being very low GL (1GL per quarter bar), uses chicory root fibre, the natural source of inulin. (There may be others on the market but do check that sugar content is below 5%.) According to a recent study inulin, a resistant starch that acts as a prebiotic promoting bacteria that produce nitric oxide, protects the arteries and may therefore be good for the heart.

This way of eating is also excellent for breaking sugar addiction and, at least, pointing in this direction is probably good for all of us. If you don’t want to go the full hog having some soluble fibre rich oats and ancient Kamut wheat, is a good middle ground. This is what I do but I’m not dealing with cancer.


So how do you do it in real life? Dr Joseph Mercola’s new book Fat for Fuel is good for learning how to follow this kind of approach to the letter. Even if you don’t need to do that, it’s still a better idea to have more foods on the left and less foods on the right.


Fish (sardines, non-farmed salmon, mackerel, herring, Arctic cod, halibut)

Organic, free range eggs

Nuts (pecan, brazil, macadamia, chia)

Avocados (have one every day)

Coconut oil

Ghee (clarified butter – but not for breast cancer)

Cacao butter and nibs (or my chocolate)

Polyphenol rich olive oil and olives

Non-starchy vegetables – lots of them


Berries (especially blueberries)

Quinoa, tofu, tempeh and lentils



Meat, unless wild, organic and grass fed

Sugar (avoid completely except for xylitol, erythritol or stevia)

High sugar fruits (bananas, grapes, raisins and dates)

Dairy products (have only full fat, organic when you do)



Scrambled eggs, using olive oil, ghee or coconut oil –add mushrooms/smoked salmon

or scrambled tofu (with a couple of oatcakes if not going for rapid ketosis)

Huevos Rancheros with avocado and salsa

Chia porridge with unsweetened soya or almond milk and coconut yoghurt

Smoothie with Get Up & Go (4g carbs per serving), berries, coconut oil/cream, chia, cinnamon, cacao butter, with half water half no sugar soya or almond milk – add glucomannan for a soluble fibre boost.


Fish with salad or steamed vegetables

A fish, nuts, greens salad with avocado

Tofu or tempeh with lots of vegetables

Lentil, vegetable hotpot or soup – try my chestnut and butterbean soup (See GL Diet Bible)

Chilli with kidney beans (GL Diet Bible)

Fish soup or organic bone broth

Organic chicken (thigh is highest in fat), lamb, beef, pork if not going vegan or fishitarian

Mushroom and bean bolognese or  mushroom and beef stew (See Ten Secrets Cookbook)

– use shiitake for immune boost


Raw nuts or seeds (pecans, brazils or pumpkin seeds for example) with or without berries

Yoghurt (soya, coconut or organic milk) with seeds/berries

Avocado with hummus or olive oil or guacamole

Crudités with taramasalata (celery is best – pepper or carrot in moderation)


Chia pudding made by soaking chia seeds in coconut milk

Dark chocolate expresso or coconut mousse (see Ten Secrets Cookbook) – adapt by adding cacao butter or coconut butter

Coconut crème (without the caramel)

Almond Macaroons (see Low GL Diet Bible)

Let me know if you’ve found or made some great recipes that make this way of eating most enjoyable then we can compile and share with other members.

A very useful cookbook for people exploring healthier Ketogenic recipes is The Ketogenic Cookbook by Jimmy Moore and Maria Emmerich.