Clearing Up Misunderstandings About Sugar and Cancer

Monday, July 13, 2015
A common question among cancer patients is, “Does Sugar Feed Cancer?” There are many well- meaning people who believe this wholeheartedly and often scare cancer patients into believing that if they eat sugar they are feeding their cancer and giving it the tools to grow more quickly.

While well-meaning, they are wrong. The truth is, sugar does not “feed” cancer cells any differently than sugar “feeds” all normal cells in our bodies. The human body needs glucose, or simple sugar, for energy. Even if one omits all sugar from their diet, the body will continue to make sugar from other sources, such as proteins and fats. Cancer cells need sugar to grow the in the same way as healthy cells do.

However, from an overall health perspective, it is a smart choice to minimize the amount of sugar in the diet regardless of having a cancer diagnosis. Calories loaded with sugar are empty calories and do not provide the balance of nutrients that are needed to strengthen the body’s immune system to fight cancer and other diseases.

In addition, excess sugar consumption can contribute to higher calorie intake and weight gain. Higher intake of sugary foods can also cause the body to produce higher amounts of insulin. Insulin can promote the growth of both healthy and unhealthy cells. It is not necessary, however, to avoid all sources of sugar in thediet. By eating a well-balanced diet comprised of lean protein, healthy fats, and dietary fiber, such as the Mediterranean diet, the body does not overproduce insulin in order to process simple sugar and carbohydrates in the diet.

As always, the key is moderation. If patients and survivors are going to include sugar in their diet (and it is hard not to include some sugar), choose foods that contain natural sugar, such as the sugar found in whole fruits. Avoid foods that contain concentrated sources of sugar, such as juices, soda, and fruit drinks. Limit sweets and desserts such as cakes, cookies, candies, ice cream, and sugary cereals and when you patients and survivors occasionally do enjoy them, they should have a smaller portion. Most importantly, focus on healthy, unprocessed plant foods full of cancer-fighting foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Additional Readings
1. Caring 4 Cancer. Sugar and Cancer: Is There a Connection?  Accessed July 13, 2015.
2. Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M, et al. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA Cancer J Clin. 2012;62(1):1089-1097.
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