Calorie Restriction for Cancer Risk Reduction

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, a limited-calorie diet mimicking fasting can “reboot the cells,” possibly reducing cancer risk. Jefferson radiation oncologist Dr. Nicole Simone, MD, tells us why and explains who might be a candidate for a similar diet.

How does it work?
Restricting nutrients, via fasting or dieting, causes cells to go into a state similar to hibernation since they don’t have enough nutrients and resources to live. Normal cells have the proper machinery to live through this period of nutrient restriction; they can hibernate because they can conserve their resources and they can then continue along with “business as usual” when they are exposed to food again. Cancer cells, however, do not have the ability to successfully hibernate which can lead to their inability to grow. Therefore, when nutrients are decreased and a patient undergoes a fast, the cancer cells are not successful at growing or living through this period.

Would you recommend a calorie-restricted diet to your patients?
We know that maintaining weight, or decreasing weight to a healthy body mass index, can improve cancer outcomes. I would recommend a decrease in calories to achieve this, but would not recommend extreme diets which are unable to be maintained and may be unhealthy. This article discusses an extreme form of fasting which shows benefit, but it is likely that other methods of fasting or calorie restriction can achieve similar benefits in a more tolerable way. For example, one more tolerable method of fasting would be to have a patient fast after 5 p.m. and wait until 9 a.m. or so to have breakfast. Calorie restriction can also be done by determining the total calories that a patient is consuming and to cut that by 25 percent. These methods are still stressing the body by restricting calories and the tumor cells would go into this beneficial hibernation pattern.

Who would be an ideal candidate?
Many cancer patients can benefit from some type of dietary stress. Breast and prostate cancer patients often gain weight during cancer therapy, which is linked to worse outcomes. These patients would benefit from a restriction of calories. Other cancer patients, such as those with brain tumors, may benefit more from just changing calories using a low-carbohydrate diet which can be beneficial at the molecular level to tumors. There is a potential dietary stress that can be offered to almost all patients first diagnosed with cancer which can induce this hibernation state, however particular recommendations should be discussed with your doctor.

Want to know more?
Dr. Simone is recruiting patients for a clinical trial on caloric restriction during radiation treatment for breast cancer called Caloric Restriction For Oncology Research in Early Stage Breast Cancer (CaReFOR). Women 18 years of age or older who have been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer and will undergo radiation therapy for treatment may be eligible to participate. If you are interested in learning more about participating in this study, please contact our team at carefortrial@gmail.com.

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