Most people have come to associate a keto diet with large quantities of meat, bacon, cheese and butter that we know are themselves responsible for a significant percentage of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
The fact is, ketogenic diet is simply one that eliminates dietary sources of sugar and forces the body to burn fat as fuel. Eating animal products is in no way a requirement and it is entirely possible — I’d argue preferable — to maintain ketosis on a whole foods, plant-based diet. I’ve done it for 18 months now, and never plan to go back.
The research indicating increased survival for cancer patients using a ketogenic diet is quickly becoming overwhelming. As is the research correlating a whole foods, plant-based diet with reduced cancer diagnosis and recurrence rates.
The commitment I made the first week after diagnosis is that I would only eat foods that are actively healing. Those that evidence shows would make my healthy cells stronger and my cancerous cells weaker. I strongly credit this way of eating with my healing.
In this post I cover:
- What we mean by functional foods
- The foods I eat on my healing whole foods, plant based, ketogenic diet
- What to eat if you feel you absolutely must “cheat”
- What’s in my pantry on any given day
Functional foods for cancer
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Functional foods are foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition.” The term functional is usually used to describe a “food as medicine” dietary approach.
In the case of my diet, I looked to focus on foods that had been shown to
- kill cancer cells in the lab and which epidemiological studies have shown to be strongly correlated with low cancer incidences in large populations
- reduce body inflammation, as an inflammatory environment is just the type of environment cancer loves
- improve immune function
The foods that match the criteria above have generally been shown to be most effective – or only effective – in their whole, unprocessed form. Only a few were too high carb to be eaten regularly and stay in ketosis. I therefore focused my diet around those that were lowest carb, leaving room in my daily macro allotment for higher carb foods shown to be especially healing.
I hope you like vegetables…
Foods around which I build my diet
A post describing how I eat can be found here. The information below is the same presented from a more general perspective.
The primary foods to eat on a whole foods, plant-based keto diet:
- Dark green, leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, lettuces, etc.)
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, etc.)
- Healthy fats (avocado, coconut, flaxseed oil, olive oil, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds (flax seeds, chia seeds, pecans, almonds, etc.)
- Low-sugar fruits (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.)
Overall tips to keep in mind:
- The more colorful, the better. The color is the nutrient.
- As a general rule, these foods are most beneficial eaten raw or freshly ground. In the case of cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc) this is especially true. If you prefer to eat them cooked, chop them at least 40 minutes before cooking so that sulforophane has time to form. Some studies indicate flaxseed and garlic lose potency within minutes of chopping. On the flip side, certain foods, marked below, show increased benefits when cooked.
- Always read the ingredients! Every ingredient should be acceptable to you. The other day I came across a package labeled “100% pure acai pulp” and only after reading the ingredients did I see it was 99% acai pulp and 1% unacceptable ingredients. Hidden sugar and chemicals are lurking everywhere. I once bought a package of apples with the most disgusting grape flavor – turns out they’d been injected with sugary, chemical grape flavor. Who does that to an apple? Don’t trust anything and always read the ingredients!
⭐ a star indicate real functional nutrition stars that I try to focus my diet around.
✅ a checkbox indicate the foods so powerful I try to eat them daily
🍳 a pan indicates those foods that are best eaten cooked
🤏 a pinch indicates foods that should be eaten in smaller amounts as they fit your macros
Fruits & Vegetables
- Beets 🤏
- Bell pepper 🤏
- Bok choy⭐
- Broccoli (Broccoli sprouts, broccoli rabe, rapini, broccolini, romanesco, etc) ⭐✅
- Brussels Sprouts⭐
- Cabbage (Savoy cabbage, napa cabbage, red cabbage, etc)⭐
- Capers ⭐
- Cauliflower (broccoflower, romanesco, etc)⭐
- Celariac root 🤏
- Chard (swiss, rainbow, etc)⭐
- Collard greens⭐
- Eggplant/ Aubergine 🍳🤏
- Edamame/ Whole soy beans
- Fennel ⭐
- Garlic ⭐✅
- Green apple 🤏
- Green beans (string beans, snap beans)🤏
- Lemon 🤏
- Lime 🤏
- Kiwi 🤏
- Konjac yam
- Leeks 🤏
- Mushrooms (turkey tail, shiitake, maitake, portobellow, etc)🍳⭐
- Nettles 🍳
- Onion (red, green, etc) 🤏
- Radish (daikon, etc)
- Sea vegetables (seaweed, kelp, dulse, etc) ⭐
- Summer squash (chayote, yellow, etc)
- Tomato 🍳🤏
Herbs, Spices & Sweeteners
- Cacao ⭐
- Capers ⭐
- Chilis/ red pepper⭐
- Cilantro/ coriander⭐
- Cinnamon ⭐✅
- Garlic ⭐✅
- Ginger ⭐
- Mustard ⭐
- Parsley ⭐
- Oregano ⭐
- Rosemary ⭐
- Salt, non-iodinized (Himalayan pink, Celtic gray)
- Stevia 🤏
Nuts & Seeds
- Brazil Nuts ⭐✅ (no more than 2-3 per day)
- Chia seeds⭐
- Flax seed/ linseed ⭐✅
- Hazelnuts/ filberts
- Hemp seeds
- Macadamia nuts
- Pine nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
Oil, Vinegar & Seasonings
- Apple cider vinegar ⭐✅
- Avocado oil
- Balsamic vinegar 🤏
- Coconut oil
- Flaxseed/ Linseed oil ⭐✅
- Olive oil⭐✅
- MCT oil
- Sesame oil
- Vinegar (white, wine, red)
- Green tea ⭐✅
- Miso 🤏
- Nutritional yeast
- Other fermented food like sauerkraut, sugar-free kimchi, tempeh, water kefir, coconut yogurt, etc) ⭐✅
- Select other teas, powders & tinctures (ashwaganda root, turkey tail extract, black seed oil, etc) ⭐✅
Occasionally acceptable foods
- Fruits not on this list – fruits are incredible sources of nutrition but sadly too high in natural sugars to be compatible with deep, therapeutic ketosis. I reserve them for special occasions and usually fast to quickly reset my GKI after the special meal.
- Tofu – it’s highly processed but nutritious and versatile; look for the least processed, organic tofu you can find.
- Other legumes like peanuts, chickpeas (garbanzo) and mung beans.
- Starchy vegetables like yam, celeriac, and rutabaga. They need to be thoughtfully included where they fit your macros.
- Organic, pasture-raised egg.
- Wild-caught oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring, trout or mackerel).
When you absolutely must “cheat”
This way of eating can be difficult at first but to me there’s no reason I’d want to ever make my cancer stronger. Even so, given the emotional roller-coaster of chemo, cancer and simply being human, sometimes you feel you absolutely must eat something that’s not healing.
If I have to prioritize during treatment, remaining in ketosis is my highest priority. I really try hard to stay away from the “keto junk food” but on rough days I would break and hit up Brad’s supply of Quest bars or Lily’s chocolate. I never ate meat but grass-fed or pasture-raised animals are probably a good choice for those who are falling off the wagon, anyway as they are whole, unprocessed food.
Now that I’m in remission and eating to prevent recurrance, I’m less concerned with my GKI and prioritize whole foods meaning my indulgences are centered around apples and yams.
If you do, don’t beat yourself up. You’re going through so much right now. Just don’t let one bad meal “ruin the day” – or worse, week. Get right back to eating healing, whole foods that will strengthen your body and fight your cancer.
Pantry staples for functional, therapeutic ketosis
Below are the foods I stock in my cupboards to make sure I can make any of my favorite meals and only need to pick up the produce for my planned meals.
In this section, I’ve linked to the actual brands that I use and are in my cupboard or refrigerator now. In some cases I may have an affiliate partnership with the brand, in which case I will earn a (very) small commission if you purchase through this link. This in no way influences what I recommend.
Nuts, Butters & Seeds
- Almond butter (make sure the only ingredient is almonds, maybe salt)
- Brazil nuts
- Coconut butter (aka creamed coconut, coconut manna, coconut bliss)
- Chia Seeds
- Hemp Hearts
- Flaxseeds, whole
- Tahini (make sure the only ingredient is sesame seeds, maybe salt)
- Other snack nuts like almonds, pecans or macadamia nuts
Oils & Vinegars
- Raw apple cider vinegar
- Unrefined coconut oil
- Organic flaxseed oil with lignans (I recommend Barlean’s purchased only from the refrigerated section of your conscientious grocer. Read about oil care here.)
- MCT oil
- Cold pressed, high-oleocanthal olive oil (I use kyoord as it is sourced by a cancer researcher – 10% off your first bottle with coupon code CANCERVME10)
- Cold pressed toasted sesame oil
Sauces & Condiments
Spice Rack & Baking
All spices are great! I just don’t have much room in my little Hong Kong kitchen so I prioritize:
- Aluminum-free baking powder (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
- Black pepper
- Cacao powder
- Curry Powder
- Everything but the Bagel seasoning
- Himalayan pink salt or Grey Celtic
- Organic stevia drops
- Turmeric (root & powder)
- Vanilla extract
- Vegetable bouillon
Snacks & treats
- 100% cacao chocolate (I used to eat Montezuma and joined a kickstarteer for a great vegan, keto chocolate company called ketodose, hopefully coming soon!)
- Canned coconut milk (Whole Foods and Clearspring brands use BPA-free lined cans)
- Coffee – Any organic variety!
- Green olives
- Green tea
- Kelp noodles
- Flackers flax seed crackers
- Seaweed snacks
- Shiritake noodles