November 25, 2014

Metabolic Theory of Cancer: Introduction

If you have followed my blog for any length of time, you are probably accustomed to me having contrarian views. Much of what I believe about nutrition, food, and health, runs counter to the advice we’ve heard from the government, the popular media, and, for the most part, even from our own professional healthcare providers. I have talked many times about my feelings on saturated fat and cholesterol, and I’ll have a few posts coming up on another misunderstood and wrongfully maligned essential nutrient—sodium.

In the meantime, there is another issue—a big, big issue—that I’d like to bring attention to, and I’m going to strike while the iron is hot. On this week’s episode of the Paleo Solution Podcast (which you can check out right here), Robb Wolf is interviewing Travis Christofferson, who wrote a book called Tripping Over the Truth: The MetabolicTheory of Cancer. I first became aware of Travis and his interest in cancer research back in 2013, when he wrote this guest post for Robb’s website. I left a comment, which spurred Travis to check out my blog, where he saw that I do book reviews. Well, he asked me to review the book several weeks ago, and you can now read my glowing review of it on Amazon.

I had intended to write an additional review tailored specifically for my blog audience, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized there is so much fascinating, educational, and potentially life-saving information to be had by digging into this material that there was no way a simple one-post book review would do it justice. So instead, this will be a multi-part series looking at a contrarian—but revolutionary and extremely promising—view on the etiology and potential treatment of cancer. 

Dueling Cancer Theories

If you have not followed my work for any length of time, you might nevertheless be at least somewhat aware that, back in the 1950s and 1960s, there were two competing hypotheses about what was behind the sudden rise in heart disease in the United States. One theory held that it was caused by too much saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet, while the other theory contended that it was the result of too much refined carbohydrate in the diet. For well over half a century now, the dietary advice coming from government authorities as well as private healthcare organizations has been based on the former theory: hence, the longstanding recommendations to reduce red meat and egg consumption, swap out butter for margarines made from polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and don’t even think about touching bacon or lard without first donning a hazmat suit.

This town ain’t big enough 
for the both of us…
Well, just as one of two competing theories muscled out the other in regard to heart disease—whether or not the one that prevailed was actually the correct one (and, in fact, an overwhelming body of evidence suggests it was not), for nearly a century now, there have been two competing theories regarding the etiology of cancer. One of them—rightly or wrongly—has received the lion’s share of media attention, research dollars, and therapeutic targeting. This is called the Somatic Mutation Theory (SMT), and it holds that cancer is caused by mutations to DNA inside the nucleus of a cell.

The competing theory—one that was put forth nearly a century ago, but which has, until very recently, been mostly ignored by all but the most dedicated and steadfast-in-their-beliefs scientists—is called the Metabolic Origins Theory (MOT). The MOT holds that the genetic mutations seen in cancer cells are not the cause of cancer, but rather, downstream effects. I’m sure this sounds implausible to some of you, but let’s remember that this type of seemingly reversed causality is demonstrated in a number of other health issues. (I have talked about obesity being a result of several possible health conditions, rather than their cause, and I have written about the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease being effects, rather than causes, of this type of neurodegeneration. Moreover, I have talked about the plaques potentially even being a protective mechanism, even though mainstream medicine typically sees them as causal elements. Further down the line in this series, I will return to this notion of something seemingly harmful actually being a protective mechanism as it relates specifically to cancer.)

The MOT holds that the problem lies not with the DNA inside the nucleus, but rather, with the mitochondria, organelles that float around in the cytoplasm and are the main site of ATP generation. Recall from high school biology class (or this post) that ATP is the universal energy currency for life on Earth. From plants, to mold spores, to cultured mouse cells, to human beings, all of our cells use ATP to run all the processes that keep us alive—including the replication of DNA. (We’ll come back to this.)

What I hope to accomplish with this series:

We can do better!
I would like to get us all thinking about why we, as a collective human race, have made so little progress in treating cancer. Like I said in my review of Travis’s book, when we put our minds to building an atomic bomb, we did it in relatively short order. When we decided we wanted to land a man on the moon, we did that in even shorter order. The U.S. is nothing if not good at creating astonishing outcomes when we put our greatest scientific minds together and give them lots and lots of money to play with. So why, over forty years after President Nixon declared “war on cancer” (1971), after billions upon billions of dollars spent, and millions of lives lost, have we barely scratched the surface of actually doing something about cancer? If the best we have to offer is a better five-year survival rate, well, that’s okay—I mean, maybe in those five years after diagnosis, someone gets to attend their child’s wedding, or see them graduate from college—but in the grand scheme, considering the amount of effort that’s gone into cancer research in the last several decades, what it really is, is a national embarrassment.

There is a problem

When the best we have to offer is the “slash, burn, poison” approach to getting rid of cancer (surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy), there’s a problem. When all the conventional go-to treatments are as damaging to healthy tissue as they are to cancerous tissue, there’s a problem.

There is a strong possibility we have been approaching the problem from the wrong angle. And if we have incorrectly assessed the problem, then it’s no wonder we haven’t found an effective solution. But that doesn’t mean a solution doesn’t exist; it just means we need to reorient our focus. We need to take the spotlight we’ve been shining on mutated chromosomes and shift it to something else. We need to have the courage, integrity, and humility, to admit that we might have been wrong, and now, as quickly as possible, start looking at this through some very different guiding principles. We need to admit that how we’ve been approaching cancer has left a great deal to be desired, and that there’s another perspective that stands a better chance of being effective.

There has got to be a better way.
(Where'd you lose your keys? Over there. 
Then why are you looking here? Because this is where the light is...)

To the extent that a scientifically literate nutritionist who is neither a biochemist nor an oncologist can be, I am familiar with some potential answers to the question above, and I would like to share them with you. If the grim statistics are to be believed, all of us and our loved ones face the possibility that we will deal with cancer personally, if we/they haven’t already. Even those among us who are the “cleanest” eaters, and the best sleepers, and who “Paleo” harder than anyone’s ever Paleo’ed before, let’s get real: cancer is out there, and 8 hours of sleep every night, cod liver oil, bone broth, and long, relaxing walks in the fresh air might not prevent it. (To be honest with you, I don’t think that’s too far off, but I’ll save my philosophizing for when we’re near the end of this series.)    

Because cancer is out there, and because none of us is immune, we’d better know what we’re dealing with, and we’d better start coming up with more effective ways to combat this horrible, horrible, thing.

In order to accomplish my goal of sharing this alternate view of cancer and having it make total sense, I will need to work through a lot of information. Most of it is utterly fascinating to me, but some of my readership might find it a total snooze-fest. If you are among the latter, no sweat. Take a break for a bit and come back when I return to posting simpler things, like a forthcoming review of this book about olive oil. But I certainly hope everyone sticks around. I stand by what I said above: some of this information might be life-saving – or, at the very least, quality of life enhancing. (More on that when we get to therapies.)

I will do my best to make 
class interesting. 

Because of the nature of this information, I will necessarily be oversimplifying some of the science. My goal is to make this interesting to those already somewhat “in the know” (and maybe even present a few things that will be new to them), but even more so, to introduce these concepts to people who don’t (or can’t, for lack of a basic foundation in biology) follow along when Dr. Peter Attia writes about cancer, never mind when Dr. Thomas Seyfried does the same. I am humbled that some of my readership is fluent in biochemistry and physiology and still finds reasons to stick around here. But I’d really like to bring the others up to speed—the ones who have no idea (yet) what I mean when I say things like “electron transport chain,” or “aerobic fermentation.”

Like my digestion series, let’s consider this “Competing Cancer Theories for (not-so) Dummies.” I will, by necessity, be leaving out some detail that might be a bit intimidating for a lay readership, but I will do my best to provide enough of the good stuff so that we can have a working understanding of what’s going on and really feel like we’re learning something valuable.

So, to those of you who already know a lot about this, let me say again, I will be simplifying things. But I certainly don’t want to misrepresent anything, so please, do call me out if I say anything factually incorrect. There’s a difference between glossing over something and being flat-out wrong, and while I may sometimes be forced into the former, I’d like to avoid the latter.

What I plan to do in the next several posts:

  • Discuss some basic facts about cancer cells
  • Introduce the Somatic Mutation Theory and explore why cancer therapies based on this paradigm—targeting DNA—have largely failed
  • Set the stage for discussing the Metabolic Origins Theory by providing a basic primer on mitochondrial structure and function, and cellular metabolism of different fuels
  • Introduce the Metabolic Origins Theory and discuss why cancer therapies based on this paradigm fit the biochemistry and physiology of cancer much more elegantly, and, therefore, stand a better chance of success
  • Using the MOT as a guide, see why cells doing what they do when they become cancerous may be a kind of protective mechanism—a way to keep themselves alive—and why this makes them especially hard to kill
  • With the MOT as the guiding principle, discuss the promising potential of a multi-pronged strategy to fight cancer, which includes a ketogenic diet, hyperbaric oxygen, fasting, and existing conventional cancer treatments (You will never look at an Ensure shake the same way again.)

It is not within my knowledge base to talk about the economic, political, and academic forces behind why the somatic mutation theory bullied the metabolic origins theory into obscurity. For that story, I recommend Travis’s book. All I can say is, I’m glad the MOT is experiencing a resurgence, and that there are researchers, clinicians—and nutritionists!—looking at things from this angle, and who are willing to turn the current standard operating procedure on its head in favor of something that might actually begin to turn the tide and hit cancer where it hurts.

Until next time, check out the book review and you’ll get a preview of the mind-blowing things to come.

(Continue to part two in the series: Cells Behaving Badly)

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Great review Amy! And looking forward to your future posts - as always. I'm always saddened when I hear of yet another friend/acquaintance getting the dreaded diagnosis and then saying they are going the surgery, chemo & radiation route. Maybe this book as a gift to these people may help them to stop and reconsider.

  2. Thanks for beginning this series of posts. I will buy the book for my brothers and myself.

  3. Bless you, Amy, for launching this extremely important discussion and reviewing the insightful book that opened it. We fully support its thesis and admire your good judgment in making your review available for the wider Amazon audience. The subject of what might be called natural therapy for cancer has long been an interest of ours. Last February, we posted “A Biochemical Outline of a Cure for Cancer” in ( It was inspired by the pioneering ketogenic diet therapy of Dr. Thomas Seyfried.

    Hopefully, discussions like yours will lead to the day when cancer is accepted as a metabolic disease and, like all inflammatory metabolic diseases, is prevented or cured by proper nutritional support of the body’s incredible self-healing system.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I genuinely hope a lot of people find this. I think it's incredibly important information, and so few people know about it. Robb Wolf's site is transferring servers, so it's been down for a while, otherwise I think I'd be getting a lot more traffic. It's been a little slow so far, which is disappointing, because I *really* want to get this conversation going in a big way.

      Folks, we have genuine biochemical celebrities in our midst! Welcome Alice & Fred Ottoboni (both PhDs), authors of The Modern Nutritional Diseases:

  4. +1 to buy the book. Inspiring writing.

    Why not consider alternatives to mainstream treatments if they do no more harm and may be better? Living the contrarian approach against carbohydrates and for eating good fats, and seeing results, has opened my view that mainstream dogma is not always right.


  5. Hi Amy,

    Thanks for doing this series. I got diagnosed with ocular melanoma five years ago, started paleo two and a half years ago and have been doing the restricted ketogenic diet for nearly a year now. It's fairly difficult to find reliable information about following the diet, so I appreciate all sources!

    I'd love to find a forum for other people following the R-KD - I find that even being virtually perfect with the diet, even after three days of fasting, even with metformin and MCT oil, my blood glucose numbers never come anywhere near as low as suggested. I've virtually never seen a number below 70 (usually more like mid to high 80's) and I test at minimum four times a day. Blood ketones sometimes reach the 3s and 4s, but often dip into the 1s (tested twice a day).

    Really looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say. -A.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Give yourself some credit -- the R-KD is no joke! Any amount of effort you put toward it will be helpful, in my opinion, even if your glucose is higher than you'd like. Are you taking any steroid drugs? Unfortunately, that will keep your blood glucose a little higher than it would otherwise be, *regardless* of your diet. (If you do happen to be on anything of that nature, no sweat -- that just means it's even *more* important to manage BG as best you can with diet/fasting/relaxation. I include relaxation, because don't forget about stress--very high stress levels will also keep BG slightly elevated.) It's a little counterintuitive, but intense exercise will also raise BG, at least in the short term (for just a little while post-workout). I'm not sure if you're doing any of that, but if you are, that's another factor.

      I know Dr. Seyfried recommends keeping BG in the 60s neighborhood if possible, but really, don't sweat that too much. Just keep doing the best you can, which it sounds like you already are. :) I think a lot of people have trouble getting that low, and I also think you will still reap a significant amount of benefit from the ketogenic approach, even if you don't see numbers as low as you want to aim for.

      I won't be getting into the dietary approach until we've laid some more groundwork first, but I'll definitely be covering it when we get there. You've been at it a while already, but feel free to email me privately if you'd like to bounce some ideas around. (tuitnutrition [at] gmail [dot] com) Also -- have you checked out Ellen Davis's e-book? I think it's probably the single greatest source of information on all this:

      Her whole website is a one-stop treasure trove for information regarding many aspects of keto, not just cancer:

  6. Many thanks for the kind words, Amy, but they really belong to you and all of your peers who devote themselves to helping others in need of nutritional truth. We heartily second your recommemdation to readers to prepare for tuitnutrition's nutritional advice by familiarizing themselves with Ellen Davis' website. Ellen is not only very knowledgeable but also a very kind and caring person.

    Another extremely helpful post for readers to put into their data base for future use is "Why You Need To Stop Worrying About The Color Of Your Ketostix" (

    May you be truly inspired, Amy, as you work on your multi-part Tripping Over the Truth" series. You are doing a great service. A&F

  7. Good start. I really love it when someone says what are the facts. You remind me of Denise Minger, same no nonsense approach - just the facts man.

  8. With keys: "Where'd you lose your keys? Over there. Then why are you looking here? Because this is where the light is."

    With cancer: "Where'd you invest your time and energy? Over there. Then why are you looking here? Because this is where the money is."

  9. There are some news about the subject.
    Follows the abstract of an article published this month that offers an alternative hypothesis advocating stress, by inducing lactate production, as the primary cause of cancer:
    Carlos ETB Monteiro, “Stress as the Inductive Factor for Increased Lactate Production: The Evolutionary Path to Carcinogenesis”. Positive Health Online, Edition 241, October, 2017 at
    In the present paper is discussed about the recent evolution in the understanding of the role of lactate formation in promoting cancer.
    On it is postulated the hypothesis that chronic stress is the major risk factor and inductor of the increased lactate production which might lead to the carcinogenic process. It also explains how stress develops lactate formation, what was discovered in 1925.
    The current hypothesis support ketogenic diets for prevention and therapy for cancer. This inside the reasoning that while fats do not have appreciable effects on the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or in lactate formation, high carbohydrate diets have significantly effects on both SNS and lactate formation.
    At the end of the paper has a short explanation and link to a parallel article where is discussed cardiac glycosides (ex.: digitalis like digoxin) as the fundamental drugs for prevention and treatment of cancer.

  10. This page has been translated into French by
    Mathilde Guibert