21/06/2024

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Unlocking the Power of Ketogenic Diets in Cancer Treatment: A Conversation with Miriam Kalamian

Unlocking the Power of Ketogenic Diets in Cancer Treatment: A Conversation with Miriam Kalamian

Based on an interview Between Tamzyn Murphy (RD, MSc) and Miriam Kalamian (CNS)

Reviewed by Tamzyn Murphy, RD, MSc

Nutrition Network’s Scientific Content Managing Editor and Registered Dietitian (MSc) discusses the practical implementation of a ketogenic diet for cancer, with cancer expert, researcher and nutritionist, Miriam Kalamian. Miriam’s journey into this field is not just professional but deeply personal, stemming from her son’s battle with a brain tumor.

Miriam’s story is one of hope, resilience, and the transformative power of nutrition. Her son’s diagnosis propelled her into a world where traditional treatments fell short, leading her to explore alternative approaches. She stumbled across the concept of cancer as a metabolic disease, rather than rooted in genetics. Pioneers like Otto Warburg and Dr. Thomas Seyfried highlighted the role of metabolism in cancer development, paving the way for novel therapeutic strategies. Ketogenic diets, characterized by low-carbohydrate and high-fat intake, emerged as a promising metabolic therapy for cancer. Miriam’s journey exemplifies this paradigm shift in cancer management. Her son gained six more years of life from ketogenic nutrition interventions, where conventional treatments had failed him.

The ketogenic diet’s mechanisms of action in cancer are multifaceted. By restricting glucose availability, it starves cancer cells of their preferred fuel source, potentially impeding their growth. Moreover, ketone bodies produced during ketosis possess anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties, fostering a hostile environment for cancer progression. However, translating these principles into clinical practice requires careful consideration of individual patient factors.

Miriam emphasizes the importance of personalized nutrition plans tailored to each patient’s unique needs. While ketogenic diets hold promise, their implementation must be nuanced, considering factors like baseline metabolic health, nutritional status, and tumor type. For instance, patients with brain cancer may benefit from stricter carbohydrate restriction to optimize therapeutic ketosis. Conversely, malnourished individuals may require a more gradual approach to prevent adverse effects.

One key takeaway from Miriam’s experience is the need for early intervention. Starting the ketogenic diet sooner in her son’s journey might have yielded even greater benefits. Timely incorporation of nutritional strategies alongside conventional treatments can enhance overall outcomes and quality of life for cancer patients. Miriam’s advocacy for proactive nutrition interventions underscores the importance of a holistic approach to cancer care.

Kalamian emphasizes the importance of exercise in cancer therapy, not only for its general health benefits but also for its specific role in combating cancer. Maintaining muscle mass and promoting overall well-being are integral components of her approach. She explains how certain types of exercise, such as strength training and resistance bands, can stimulate muscle protein synthesis, thereby optimizing the utilization of nutrients from meals for muscle tissue repair and growth. Additionally, she highlights the role of cardio exercise in facilitating the movement of glucose into large muscle groups, which can help regulate blood glucose levels and hinder cancer cell proliferation. 

The conversation transitions to discussing the carnivore diet, a dietary approach characterized by high protein and fat intake and minimal carbohydrates. Kalamian acknowledges the potential benefits of the carnivore diet, particularly for individuals with autoimmune conditions or digestive issues. However, she also raises concerns about excessive protein intake and its impact on insulin and other growth pathways, such as mTOR activation. She advises caution when adopting the carnivore diet, stressing the importance of balancing protein intake and considering individual metabolic needs.

In contrast to the carnivore diet, Kalamian explores the challenges of implementing a vegan diet within cancer treatment. While acknowledging the ethical and environmental considerations of veganism, she discusses the difficulty of achieving therapeutic ketosis on a vegan diet due to its high carbohydrate content. She suggests personalized approaches to address protein intake and emphasizes the importance of maintaining a balanced diet that meets individual nutritional needs while adhering to ethical beliefs.

Kalamian emphasizes the need for personalized dietary approaches in cancer therapy, considering factors such as age, overall health, and starting body weight. She emphasizes the importance of avoiding excessive weight loss, particularly in older individuals or those with preexisting conditions, when implementing a ketogenic diet. She also discusses the impact of meal frequency on nutrient absorption and advises against extreme fasting or one-meal-a-day approaches, especially for cancer patients, to ensure adequate nutrient distribution throughout the day.

One of the key points Kalamian emphasizes is the balance between therapeutic restriction and long-term sustainability. While the initial phases of a ketogenic diet may involve strict carbohydrate restriction, she stresses the importance of gradually liberalizing the diet to ensure adequate nutrient intake and prevent dietary fatigue.

“It’s hard to get all the nutrients you need when you’re eating as restricted as that,” Kalamian explains. “We’re here to build health. We’re not here to just kind of wear people down over time.”

Her approach highlights the need for individualized care, recognizing that not all patients will thrive on the same dietary regimen. Kalamian suggests that during intense treatment phases, patients may benefit from stricter restrictions, particularly if they have excess weight that can be utilized as a fuel source.

Moreover, Kalamian emphasizes the importance of understanding the metabolic nature of cancer when designing dietary interventions. She explains how certain cancers, such as brain cancer, may require more stringent dietary restrictions due to limited treatment options.

“For certain cancers like maybe prostate cancer, maybe just getting half to two-thirds protein from animals and maybe in some cancers staying away from dairy proteins, being more careful to cull those,” she advises.

However, she also acknowledges the importance of monitoring nutritional intake and adjusting the diet accordingly to prevent deficiencies. Tools like chronometer and regular clinician check-ins play a vital role in ensuring patients receive adequate nutrition while following a ketogenic protocol.

Additionally, Kalamian addresses the role of glutamine in cancer metabolism and potential nutritional interventions to modulate its uptake. While acknowledging the complexity of targeting glutamine metabolism, she highlights the importance of dividing protein intake and avoiding excessive reliance on animal-based proteins.

“There’s too much fear around glutamine,” Kalamian notes, debunking misconceptions about certain foods’ glutamine content. She emphasizes the need for a balanced approach to protein intake and recommends incorporating a variety of protein sources to mitigate concerns about glutamine levels.

Furthermore, Kalamian discusses emerging pharmacological interventions targeting glutamine metabolism and acknowledges the need for medical oversight in their administration. She highlights ongoing research efforts to refine treatment protocols and optimize outcomes for patients with glutamine-avid cancers.

Miriam Kalamian’s journey into the field of cancer nutrition, fueled by her son’s battle with a brain tumor, sheds light on the transformative potential of ketogenic diets in cancer treatment. Her expertise underscores the importance of personalized nutrition plans tailored to individual patient needs. From navigating the nuances of dietary interventions to addressing concerns about glutamine metabolism, Kalamian offers invaluable insights for clinicians navigating the complexities of ketogenic diets in cancer therapy. Through her personal and professional experiences, Kalamian emphasizes the importance of individualized care, early intervention, and a holistic approach to cancer management. By integrating nutritional strategies alongside conventional treatments and staying abreast of emerging research, clinicians can unlock the full potential of metabolic therapy in cancer care, ultimately improving outcomes and quality of life for patients.

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