Restricting carbohydrates to fight head and neck cancer—is this realistic?

Rainer J. Klement

Abstract


Head and neck cancers (HNCs) are aggressive tumors that typically demonstrate a high glycolytic rate, which results in resistance to cytotoxic therapy and poor prognosis. Due to their location these tumors specifically impair food intake and quality of life, so that prevention of weight loss through nutrition support becomes an important treatment goal. Dietary restriction of carbohydrates (CHOs) and their replacement with fat, mostly in form of a ketogenic diet (KD), have been suggested to accommodate for both the altered tumor cell metabolism and cancer-associated weight loss. In this review, I present three specific rationales for CHO restriction and nutritional ketosis as supportive treatment options for the HNC patient. These are (1) targeting the origin and specific aspects of tumor glycolysis; (2) protecting normal tissue from but sensitizing tumor tissue to radiation- and chemotherapy induced cell kill; (3) supporting body and muscle mass maintenance. While most of these benefits of CHO restriction apply to cancer in general, specific aspects of implementation are discussed in relation to HNC patients. While CHO restriction seems feasible in HNC patients the available evidence indicates that its role may extend beyond fighting malnutrition to fighting HNC itself.

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