Ketogenic Diet and Cancer – Coconut Oil or Snake Oil?

snake oilI was very pleased recently to receive an invitation from Martina Slajerova, author and developer of one of my favourite resources, the, to write a guest post for her blog. This is a cross-post, a reproduction of the post I wrote for her blog. You can see the post on Martina’s blog here.


A few weeks ago, I was quoted in an online news piece regarding my use of the ketogenic diet to battle cancer. I have detailed my approach to managing my grade two brain tumour using the keto diet on my own blog, which had garnered some attention. The article was shared on social media on a site I follow, which primarily targets an audience interested in using the ketogenic diet for weight loss. I was mildly surprised to see that there was a common theme in the comments that (I paraphrase here) “this kind of hype is what makes our diet lack credibility for weight loss, because people try to make it a miracle solution for everything”.

Funny how perspective changes everything, isn’t it? On my own blog, I’ve written for an audience of people who are desperately seeking credible information on lifestyle interventions to manage cancer, and I’ve often found myself advising that one must dig through the preponderance of information that is targeted at weight loss, in order to find the specific info for addressing cancer. I think we all passionately want the same thing – to share information about something we believe has the power to really impact everyone’s life and health in a positive way. So, when Martina invited me to write a piece for her blog, I spent some time “noodling” (zoodling?) over what to use these few hundred words to say to you all about the use of the ketogenic diet for cancer. Because I think it’s important we all see one another’s perspective and not fall into a trap of co-opting, commoditizing or branding this lifestyle to the point that sharing information on one perspective is seen to diminish the value of others.

That said, I’ve met – online and in real life – a number of people over the past 18 months of my ketogenic expedition who actually don’t realize at all that this diet has strong medical treatment roots. So, perhaps you’ll indulge me briefly and take a look into the medical history of your favourite diet and mine.

Fasting and other dietary regimes have been used to treat epilepsy since 500 BC (ref). In the 1920’s, medical research saw the rise of the ketogenic diet, which was observed to mimic the effects on the body of fasting, allowing a fasted state to be maintained for an extended period of time. The actual term “ketogenic diet” was coined by a Mayo Clinic researcher named Russel Wilder, who published the first study of the diet in a few epilepsy patients in 1921 (ref). Around the same time, in seemingly unrelated news, a fellow named Otto Warburg was working on what would be Nobel Prize winning research in the field of cancer cell biology.

Warburg’s work led to the commonly heard concept today that “cancer loves sugar”. Here, I’ll take a little detour into biology 101. Normal cells in our bodies produce energy to do everything through a process scientists call “respiration”. This is all of the chemical processes required to make energy the cell needs to live. Normal cells start this process using oxygen, then go through a lot of work in the cell’s power station (structures present in every cell called “mitochondria”) to produce cellular energy. Dr. Warburg showed that cancer cells, even in the presence of oxygen, preferentially ferment sugar for energy, and believed this metabolic dysfunction to be the primary cause of cancer, not just a symptom.

It turns out that the cells in our bodies can make energy using oxygen in a process with either of two types of chemicals. One is sugar, the type Dr. Warburg observed cancer cells prefer to use. The other is fats. When blood glucose is low, normal cells switch up to use fats and go on working, in a beautiful adaptive process that we all know and love as “keto flu”. Warburg’s work, and a great deal of research since, has shown that cancer cells are not so metabolically flexible, because of their dysfunctional power plants. Basically, without blood sugar present, research has shown that the “power grid” goes dark in cancer cells. This evidence has led to the present interest in exploring how a ketogenic diet affects cancer cells. Scientific research in this area is growing tremendously, with many new human clinical trials underway.

After doing a great deal of reading, I became convinced that this was a legitimate approach to try and prevent my brain tumour from growing. I’m starving it. I visualize my book and movie, entitled “The Girl Who Starved Her Brain Tumour Right to Flipping Death”. I’m open to other suggestions on that.

My daily diet looks much the same as the rest of yours. But there are some differences that I think bear highlighting, in the interest of sharing perspectives. I don’t really fight with temptations to cheat. Every time I look at something that used to tempt me (POTATO CHIPS), I see a big bowl of tumour food, and I imagine my dark little cerebral passenger rubbing its cancer-y hands and growing big and happy. Temptation gone.

I also think a lot about my blood numbers, and can get measurement obsessed. I feel sometimes as though people using the diet for weight loss can see the scale, and adjust macros as necessary to see progress, and reach their own “carb tolerance” levels. I feel like I am constantly trying to maximize ketogenesis and can’t afford to have carbs at all that might feed that intruder, so I’m pretty strict at less than 20 g carbs per day.

So, that’s my individual perspective on what brought me to the ketogenic diet. I truly believe these different perspectives are valuable; just imagine how tremendous it is that while you’re working on controlling your weight, diabetes, thyroid or seizure disorders, what if you’re also actually starving your own little potential cancer cells? It’s all good news!

Thank you, Martina, for some of my favourite recipes, your useful information, and for the invitation to share these thoughts with your ever-growing community. Folks, thanks for reading.

Image credit: 23hours,“Snake oil? No, Snake Wine” Flickr via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


  1. Very interesting. Thank you.


  2. Thanks for sharing. It is so hard to know what can improve your odds.

    warmly, marcy


    1. Thanks for reading, Marcy. I know of what you speak! Information out there really is overwhelming and so contradictory, and it’s frankly so easy to just feel powerless in the face of it all. That’s why I want to share what I learn; I believe strongly that everyone has to make up his or her own mind about what is right for them, but you need information to base that decision on. The challenge is to add clarity, not more noise!


  3. Thank you for the ‘layperson’ description of why a ketogenic diet may help fight cancer. Very helpful.

    Like you l have found that visualizing things that used to be a treat (such as chocolate), as food for my tumor, is a really big help in choosing to avoid them.

    (And thank you for your comment (under History) about a friend saying to you to “take care and take heart”. I like it – it sort of sums up everything that matters in life now.)


  4. […] diabetics measure their blood sugars, using a finger prick of blood. I wrote about this theory in a recent cross-post for the KetoDietApp blog, if you want to understand more about it. The idea behind eating for therapeutic ketosis is to […]


  5. There is certainly a great deal to now about tis topic.
    I really like all the points you made.


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