There is a lot of confusing information and advice about the relationship between sugar and cancer. It’s become our diet’s antagonist, but where’s the consensus between how sugar and cancer are connected?
Is it causing cancer? Will sugar feed cancer cells more aggressively, making them grow? Does sugar lead to cancer treatment side effects? Does it increase different types of cancer? And how does the sugar we eat through food and drink impact our health, and what can be done in this regard?
In this blog, we will concentrate on sugar and cancer, busting some myths and discussing what experts are researching in the hopes of finding better ways for cancer treatment.
Glucose- the life fuel
An online search for sugar and cancer and finding alarming warnings that sugar is the “white death” and the “favorite food for cancer” doesn’t take long.
But this idea of sugar is responsible for kick-starting or fueling the growth of cancer is an oversimplification of some complex biology.
Most of us are familiar with table sugar, which is a pure sugar that dissolves in water and gives a sweet taste. Its proper name is saccharose, and it is made of glucose and fructose crystals. Table sugar is refined, meaning it has the production from a natural source, usually sugar beet. Unprocessed foods can also be high in simple sugars, for instance, honey.
When sugar chains get longer, they lose their sweet taste, and will no longer dissolve in water. Such chains are called polysaccharides and comprise a large part of starchy foods. Starchy foods like rice, bread, pasta, and potatoes may not taste sweet, but they are also high in carbohydrates.
Sugar is in many things that we consume, in some form or the other. And that’s good since our bodies are heavily dependent on it to function.
Glucose is the primary fuel that is powered by each of our cells. When we eat or drink things high in glucose, such as fizzy drinks, then the glucose is ingested directly into our blood. If a starchy meal, such as spaghetti, is on the table, it is broken down by the enzymes in our saliva and digestive juices and converted into glucose. And if there is no carbohydrate in our diet for some reason, cells can turn fat and protein into glucose as a last resort, since they need glucose to survive.
It is here that cancer and sugar begin to collide because cancer is a cell disease.
Cancer and Sugar
Cancer cells proliferate. They need lots of other nutrients, such as amino acids and fats. Here is the myth that sugar fuels various types of cancer: if cancer cells need lots of glucose, then cutting sugar out of our diet should help stop the disease from growing, and could even prevent it from developing first.
There is no evidence that the risk of cancer decreases following a sugar-free diet. But on the contrary, sugar in cancer patients especially triggers inflammation in the body, which may worsen the body’s terrain.
And following severely restricted diets with very low carbohydrate levels could cause long-term damage to health by eliminating foods that are good sources of fiber and vitamins, which somehow lowers the efficiency of cancer treatment.
This is particularly important for patients with cancer, as some treatments can contribute to weight loss and put the body under tremendous stress. But inadequate dietary nutrition from restrictive diets could also hamper recovery.
If cutting sugar does not help in cancer treatment, why do we encourage people in our diet advice to cut down on sugar foods?
That is because there is an indirect connection between the risk of cancer and sugar. Eating lots of sugar over time can lead to weight gain, and reduces the action of white blood cells in the body to engulf bacteria, thereby supporting the growth of harmful bacteria. And it also increases the risk of different types of cancer. Several side effects of cancer treatments can also worsen in case the blood sugar levels rise above a prescribed limit. Most cancer treatments like chemotherapy are hormonal therapies, and unregulated intake of sugar can pose harmful effects on the hormones and enzymes in our body during chemotherapy sessions, causing side effects.
How to Cut Down Added Sugar?
We’re mainly concerned with added sugar when it comes to weight gain, not sugar that is naturally found in foods such as fruits and milk or balanced starchy foods such as whole grains and pulses. One of the easiest ways to reduce your added sugar is to reduce sugar beverages, which is the largest sugar source in the diet.
Some sugary drinks, such as fizzy drinks and energy drinks, in one serving alone, can have more than the recommended daily maximum amount of added sugar. And while those extra calories promote weight gain, they do not provide any other nutritional benefits.
Other foods that have sugar are sweets, chocolate, cakes, and biscuits. Some cereal breakfasts, ready meals, pasta sauces, and yogurts contain surprising amounts of sugar.
In the final words, the sugar and cancer story is a complex one. On the one hand, sugar does not itself cause cancer, and there is no way (at the moment) of specifically starving glucose cancer cells without also harming healthy cells. But taking too much-added sugar promotes weight gain, overweight or obesity, and also increases the risk of different types of cancer.