Photograph and interview by Angela Karen
Name: Barbara A. Gower, PhD
What is your research study focus?
Diet and disease. My current grant is funded by the American Institute for Cancer Research. The goal of the study is to determine if a low-sugar diet –also called a low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet – improves cancer-related outcomes and quality of life in women with ovarian cancer.
Do you have any participants that have had success from your research study? If so, can you tell us the success rate?
Yes, from this cancer study, we have several success stories. The very first patient in the study lost 30 pounds. She feels terrific. After she completed the study, she decided to continue with the diet on her own, and she put her whole family on it. And this is a verbatim quote from the project coordinator regarding our most recent patient: “She is thrilled with her results! She’s lost 22 pounds, and has had improved blood sugar values, lower blood pressure readings, and apparently an improvement in her clinical eye exam! She stressed that she thinks of this as her (lifestyle) and not just a ‘diet.’”
When we look over the results from all of our patients who have completed the study so far, we see that, for those on the ketogenic diet, insulin decreased by an average of 28 percent; body fat decreased an average of 12 percent; visceral fat decreased by 16 percent; and markers of angiogenesis decreased dramatically, indicating that the tumor is less able to grow new blood vessels, and therefore less able to gain nourishment.
We also have success stories from our clinic, where we use the same diet as in the cancer study to treat obesity and diabetes. One of our patients came up to me in the hallway one day and literally thanked me for changing her life. She is a 70-year-old woman with long-term type 2 diabetes. She joined our “low carb” diet program. She lost a lot of weight, but more important, she was able to discontinue most of her medication, including her insulin injections. She can now manage her diabetes primarily with diet. She feels great, looks great. She looks like a slender, energetic, 16-year-old girl. I don’t even recognize her when I see her from a distance. The transformation is phenomenal. She is not our only case. I had another patient, who suffered from overweight and depression, join our program. After a few months, she told me that the “black cloud she had been living under for 40 years” had lifted. She is now happy, slim, enjoying life, with always with a smile on her face. Eating the wrong food can also exacerbate depression.
Could you tell us what propelled you to conduct this particular study?
We had a patient with ovarian cancer come to our clinic. She and her husband tracked us down because they wanted to find someone with expertise in low-carb diets. They wanted to try low carb, and had started doing it on their own. Her cancer marker had dropped more with diet than it had with chemo. We were aware that many cancers are more common in people who are overweight or have diabetes. This is because the high insulin and high glucose that are common with obesity and diabetes create the perfect environment for cancer to grow. Also, obesity and diabetes cause inflammation, which also triggers cancer growth. We were using the low carb or ketogenic diet to treat obesity and diabetes, so we decided to extend our treatment to cancer.
What is most rewarding about your job?
Helping people understand that diet composition can make a huge difference in their health. You have probably heard “a calorie is a calorie,” which implies that it doesn’t matter what you eat, it is just energy. This is not true; it matters where those calories come. They affect your hormones, and many biochemical processes. They can cause disease, or prevent disease. They can help you lose weight, or prevent you from losing weight. Same with cancer; they can help your body fight cancer, or they can make cancer worse. People need to understand this.
In the 70s, when Americans were told to cut back on dietary fat, this was a huge mistake, and very likely is responsible for the soaring rates of obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Instead, people should limit dietary carbohydrates. Humans did not evolve to eat large amounts of added sugar and processed carbohydrates. We probably ate a small amount of fibrous fruit and tubers. We should avoid grain-based foods. Carbohydrates should come from a small amount of starchy vegetables and high-fiber fruit, such as berries. The high consumption of dietary carbohydrate, especially processed grains and added sugars, is really what is responsible for the current epidemics of obesity and metabolic disease, such as diabetes and cancer.
What is your opinion of Western cancer treatment?
What you want to do is help the patient become strong and healthy, and let nature take its course. A healthy immune system will fight cancer. A healthy diet will enhance immune function and, at the same time, foster an environment that is unfriendly to cancer cells.
What advice would you give to anyone looking for a way to treat cancer rather than western medicine approaches, such as chemotherapy and radiation?
Read the book “Tripping Over the Truth,” by Travis Christofferson. He suggests an approach based on a low-sugar diet, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and the use of a chemical therapy that inhibits glycolysis. This chemical is non-toxic to healthy cells but stops cancer cells dead in their tracks. There are also plant-based compounds that are effective in treating cancer. It may take a little bit of digging, but I’d find a clinic or a physician where I could get homeopathic treatment. There is a lot of information in the new video series, “The Truth About Cancer: A Global Quest.”
What is it about the low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet that starves cancer and keeps cancer from surviving?
I think there are at least three or four aspects of the diet that have separate but related effects. Cancer cells can only use sugar for a fuel, and they need a lot of sugar, because their metabolic machinery is damaged. Cancer cells are actually not very healthy cells. I call them “one trick ponies” because they are not flexible regarding fuel use. Your healthy cells can burn fat or sugar, or protein or even ketones in some cases. Cancer cells can only burn sugar. So if you don’t eat sugar, or foods that can be converted to sugar, this will limit the amount of fuel available to cancer cells. If you don’t eat sugar or carbohydrates, you also produce less insulin. Insulin stimulates cancer cell growth. So does a hormone called insulin-like growth factor, which responds to diet. If you eat a lot of fat, instead of sugar and carbs, some of this fat will get converted to ketones, which are another type of fuel. The brain loves ketones. But cancer cells can’t use ketones, and if you treat cancer cells with ketones, they have a harder time burning sugar. The diet we use is called a “ketogenic” diet because it facilitates ketone production. We think this is one of the big reasons it will cause cancer cell growth to stall. Finally, eating sugar causes inflammation, and inflammation has been associated with cancer. Our ketogenic diet is expected to reduce inflammation, but at the same time, to enhance the ability of the immune system to fight cancer.
How do you find participants for research studies?
We are recruiting from cancer clinics and via advertisement and word of mouth.
What foods should cancer patients remove from their diet and why?
Food with added sugar, for the reasons given above. All carbohydrates can fuel cancer growth, but the “high glycemic” foods are the worst. These are the foods that are high in added sugar, or that are rapidly converted to sugar, such as grain-based processed foods and potatoes. Even fruit and especially fruit juice causes a rapid rise in blood sugar and should be avoided. Don’t be fooled by “whole grain” labels. “Whole wheat” bread causes blood sugar to rise more rapidly than some white breads. Processed grains – bread, cereal, and crackers, for example – should be avoided. Candy and sweets, of course, should be avoided.
What is your biggest achievement?
I conducted two NIH-funded research studies that showed that food “quality,” not quantity, affects risk for obesity, and also risk for metabolic disease, such as type 2 diabetes and cancer. Yes, cancer is a metabolic disease! It is caused in part by diet, obesity, and the endocrine environment created by consumption of excess fuel, particularly excess sugar and processed carbohydrates. Anyway, my data showed that even if you feed people the same number of calories, they get fatter or thinner based on the type of calories you feed them. “A calorie is NOT a calorie.” The human body responds uniquely to individual foods. We found that we could selectively deplete total body fat and leave the lean mass intact, and selectively deplete fat in undesirable locations – the abdominal area, inside skeletal muscle – just by removing high glycemic foods from the diet. High glycemic foods are sugary foods and highly processed grain-based carbohydrates. Most breakfast cereals would be a good example of a high glycemic food.
I have two of them. In addition to “Tripping over the truth,” there is “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. This book changed my life, and it changed the direction of my research. I realized that people did not “just happen to accidentally eat too much and become obese.” Rather, the type of food eaten interacts with one’s genetic or physiologic make-up to cause fat deposition. When this happens, the food you eat is no longer available to use as fuel. So you get hungry and eat more. In other words, cause-and-effect is backwards of what people think. This happens when sugar and processed carbohydrates are eaten. Although “Good Calories” is mainly about obesity, it is relevant to cancer, because obesity is a huge risk factor for cancer. Most of the cancers we are seeing today are obesity related. The obesity does not directly cause cancer. But the metabolic and endocrine environment that leads to obesity also fosters cancer, and the chronic low-level inflammation and the elevated insulin common in obesity will facilitate cancer cell growth.
I have several. I guess by now you have figured out that diet is my major obsession. It could be worse, right? I really want to figure out how “what” people eat interacts with their genes and their physiology to either make them super healthy, or conversely, to cause disease. I do this by experimenting with myself, my friends, my co-workers, and my family members. It is fascinating to see how everyone responds. I also do this by conducting controlled research studies, such as this cancer study.
My other major obsession is bicycling. I love to get outside and enjoy the world around us. I ride my bike to work every day because it is a great way to start the day. I once read that physical activity is a way to “remind your body that you are alive.” I think this is a great concept. If you don’t prod yourself to do something challenging every day, your body will just get lazy. I think this is part of what “aging” is all about.
How can readers find you?