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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

Is there a role for carbohydrate restriction in the treatment and prevention of cancer?

Rainer J Klement1* and Ulrike Kämmerer2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Radiation Oncology, University hospital of Würzburg, D-97080 Würzburg, Germany

2 Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University hospital of Würzburg, D-97080 Würzburg, Germany

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Nutrition & Metabolism 2011, 8:75  doi:10.1186/1743-7075-8-75

Published: 26 October 2011


Over the last years, evidence has accumulated suggesting that by systematically reducing the amount of dietary carbohydrates (CHOs) one could suppress, or at least delay, the emergence of cancer, and that proliferation of already existing tumor cells could be slowed down. This hypothesis is supported by the association between modern chronic diseases like the metabolic syndrome and the risk of developing or dying from cancer. CHOs or glucose, to which more complex carbohydrates are ultimately digested, can have direct and indirect effects on tumor cell proliferation: first, contrary to normal cells, most malignant cells depend on steady glucose availability in the blood for their energy and biomass generating demands and are not able to metabolize significant amounts of fatty acids or ketone bodies due to mitochondrial dysfunction. Second, high insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-1 levels resulting from chronic ingestion of CHO-rich Western diet meals, can directly promote tumor cell proliferation via the insulin/IGF1 signaling pathway. Third, ketone bodies that are elevated when insulin and blood glucose levels are low, have been found to negatively affect proliferation of different malignant cells in vitro or not to be usable by tumor cells for metabolic demands, and a multitude of mouse models have shown anti-tumorigenic properties of very low CHO ketogenic diets. In addition, many cancer patients exhibit an altered glucose metabolism characterized by insulin resistance and may profit from an increased protein and fat intake.

In this review, we address the possible beneficial effects of low CHO diets on cancer prevention and treatment. Emphasis will be placed on the role of insulin and IGF1 signaling in tumorigenesis as well as altered dietary needs of cancer patients.

Ketogenic diet; cancer; review; low carbohydrate diet; cachexia; insulin; insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1)