Harper explores the health benefits of ketogenic diet on women with metastatic breast cancer

Do you have a hankering for fatty foods? Don’t fret. Dr. David Harper argues you may be well on your way to shifting how your body functions.

Harper has been successfully following a ketogenic lifestyle for more than 6 years. His passion fuels his current exploration of the therapeutic benefits of ketogenic diets for women with metastatic breast cancer.

Ketogenic diets produce a metabolic state of ketosis, where the body burns fat for energy when limited carbohydrates are available and produces needed blood glucose from non-carbohydrate sources. By-products of this process are ketones, which create a secondary energy source for the body to rely on.

Harper has been an associate professor in the Kinesiology department since 1997 where he teaches anatomy, physiology, pathology, and contemporary health. Until recently, he was also a visiting scientist with the BC Cancer Research Centre.

“I started to question the conventional wisdom of a high carb, low fat diet – recommendations Canadians have been following for over 40 years,” Harper explains. “Humans still need carbohydrates for healthy cell function, but calories from carbohydrates can be replaced by fat, allowing the body to use fat as fuel and also metabolize ketones. Low-carbohydrate high-fat diets have been used to treat obesity and other diseases for over 150 years.”

Using ketogenic diets, Harper explores how diet optimizes immune function and the possibility that ketogenics might be used as a tool to help manage chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes or heart disease, by reducing inflammation and lowering insulin levels.

In his preliminary work, Harper developed a modified version of the traditional ketogenic diet on participants over the age of 50 who lost an average of 20 pounds over 12 weeks. The idea was designed for weight loss, but Harper reports participants were anecdotally experiencing additional health benefits such as improved management of chronic illnesses. His efforts sparked interest from the BC Cancer Research Centre, where he was asked to share his experience and look at ketogenics in a cancer framework.

Harper’s personal keto-based diet includes loading his plate with vegetables, and relying on energy to come from 70 percent saturated fat (mostly saturated fat) from healthy oils.

“It’s a lifestyle choice. People need to commit to it. But, it’s not for everyone, and it is not a cure for cancer,” explains Harper. “And it shouldn’t be done without consultation with a physician.”

His current collaboration with Dr. Jeff Volek (The Ohio State University) and Dr. Gerald Krystal (BC Cancer Research Centre, Terry Fox Lab) focuses on understanding if cancer cell growth is aggravated when the body is accustomed to using glucose as fuel. The work looks at the notion of high carbohydrate diets providing a growing environment for breast cancer tumor cells.

“By moderating the blood glucose in cancer patients, which limits insulin secretion, we are examining the impact on tumor growth and immune system response,” notes Harper.

As of January 2018, the team has been enrolling participants. Harper has been active in counselling women with breast cancer who are interested in the keto diet.

“The preliminary results indicate that the majority of women who choose to consume a ketogenic diet are able to comply with, and indeed enjoy, this new way of eating. While results and control comparisons are still being determined, early results indicate that in some women the combination of a ketogenic diet and standard of care chemotherapy decreases metabolic activity of tumors,” notes Volek.

Using a well-formulated ketogenic diet, Harper hopes to continue to explore the therapeutic benefits in chronic disease. He has just completed a book, BioDiet: The Scientifically Proven, Ketogenic Way to Lose Weight and Improve Your Health, which will be released on May 7th.