You think carbohydrates aren’t addictive? You think it’s easy to give them up? You don’t think it possible that people might prefer carbs to life?
A story title “Can a High-Fat Diet Beat Cancer” appeared in the online version of Time Magazine last year that I read when it came out, put aside to blog about later, then got sidetracked. A reader sent me a link to it a few days ago, which brought it back to the front of my mind.
The article discusses a study being done in Germany using a carb-restricted diet to fight cancer. In pre-WWII days, a German scientist, Otto Warburg, received a Nobel Prize for his work in sussing out the fact that cancer cells don’t generate energy the same way that normal cells do. Cancer cells get their energy, not like normal cells, from the mitochondrial oxidation of fat, but from glycolysis, the breakdown of glucose withing the cytoplasm (the liquid part of the cell). This different metabolism of cancer cells that sets them apart from normal cells is called the Warburg effect. Warburg thought until his dying day that this difference is what causes cancer, and although it is true that people with elevated levels of insulin and glucose do develop more cancers, most scientists in the field don’t believe that the Warburg effect is the driving force behind the development of cancer.
But it stands to reason that it can be used to treat cancer that is already growing. Since cancers can’t really get nourishment from anything but glucose, it stands to reason that cutting off this supply would, at the very least, slow down tumor growth, especially in aggressive, fast-growing cancers requiring a lot of glucose to fuel their rapid growth.
Thomas Seyfried (the same Thomas Seyfried mentioned in the article) has shown that ketogenic diets in animals and humans can stop malignant brain tumors. There is no reason to believe they wouldn’t work in other cancers as well.
A group in Germany is looking at such diets in a small pilot study. Patients are only admitted to the study when all standard therapies – chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, etc. – have failed and they have basically been sent home to die. In fact, a few were so far gone that they died within the first week of starting the study. You couldn’t ask for a study group more destined for failure, but, according to the Times article
The good news is that for five patients who were able to endure three months of carb-free eating, the results were positive: the patients stayed alive, their physical condition stabilized or improved and their tumors slowed or stopped growing, or shrunk.
If you understand the Warburg effect and the metabolism of cancer cells, it’s easy to see why this therapy works, even in patients who are at death’s door. Since the cancers can use only glucose, and since glucose is made in the cancer cells slowly and inefficiently, the cancer cells have to rely on outside glucose to provide nourishment for their rapid growth and replication. People on very-low-carb diets produce ketones, which take the place of glucose in other cells that can use these ketones for fuel. But cancer cells can’t use the ketones since ketones have to be burned in the mitochondria, which are dysfunctional in cancer cells. If you can keep blood sugar low, then growth of the cancer cells may be held in check long enough for the body’s own previously overwhelmed immune system to rally and beat the vulnerable cancer back.
Now, given all this, if you had a big cancer eating you alive and you were offered a chance for salvation by doing nothing more than following a low-carb diet, would you take it? I certainly would. But, not everyone does. I was stunned to read the comments of Dr. Melanie Schmidt, one of the researchers, about people dropping out of the study.
[Some] dropped out because they found it hard to stick to the no-sweets diet: “We didn’t expect this to be such a big problem, but a considerable number of patients left the study because they were unable or unwilling to renounce soft drinks, chocolate and so on.”
Let me see if I’ve got this right. A lifesaving therapy is offered to patients who have undergone the misery of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, and who are beyond hope, and this therapy requires nothing more than eating a lot of butter, meat, cream, cheese, etc. while avoiding most carbohydrates. And “a considerable number” drop out because they can’t give up carbs?
I say it again. And you don’t think carbs are addictive?
As a coda to this post, I’ve got to tell you that MD at this very moment is rolling out a fondant that she made a couple of days ago. She was dragooned into making the birthday cake for our granddaughter whose party is tomorrow. The kid doesn’t want a store-bought birthday cake, she wants a custom-made cake by her Nanny, which has become a tradition. She wants a Razor (a Swat Kat) cake, so MD is having to free-hand it. Although she’s never made a fondant before, MD figured that would be the easiest way to frost and decorate the cake she has in mind. I wandered over to get a cup of coffee and pulled off a tiny piece of the stuff and popped in my mouth just to see what it tasted like. Her fondant is made with powdered sugar, corn syrup, and lard (not the vegetable shortening called for in the recipe), and it is good beyond belief. I’m sitting here writing this post, and after a tiny, tiny piece (maybe 3/4 inch by 1/2 inch by 1/8 inch) of fondant, I am obsessing over how easy it would be to walk the 10 feet to where it is and start throwing it down by the handfuls. So, yes, carbs are addictive. Especially the carb-fat combo.
Lest you get the wrong idea, our granddaughter’s parents keep her on a kid’s version of the low-carb diet most of the time. The cake is a once a year deal. Thank God.
Image at top: The Sweet Tooth, painting by Ludwig Knaus 1897