We’ve all heard the connection between sugar and cancer, that sugar “feeds” cancer cells, that it causes cancer, or may cause cancer to spread more quickly. And while we all know we need to cut sugar from our meals, it’s often hard to do in the typical Western diet.
A new study, however, may provide some additional motivation. Conducted at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and published in the Jan. 1, 2016, online issue of Cancer Research, the findings show a clear correlation between sugar intake and the risk of cancer, especially breast cancer, as well as the subsequent spread of that cancer to the lungs.
Specifically, researchers believe it’s sugar’s impact on an enzymatic signaling pathway known as 12-LOX (12-lipoxygenase) – as well as a related fatty acid called 12-HETE – that’s causing the problems. Study co-author Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, explains:
“The current study investigated the impact of dietary sugar on mammary gland tumor development in multiple mouse models, along with mechanisms that may be involved. We determined that it was specifically fructose, in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, ubiquitous within our food system, which was responsible for facilitating lung metastasis and 12-HETE production in breast tumors.”
Previous research has shown similar results, including one study that linked a high-sugar diet to a 26-percent higher chance of prostate cancer. Another linked it to a 44-percent increased risk of rectal cancer and a 41-percent jump in the risk for pancreatic cancer. So does this mean we need to totally eliminate sugar from our diet?
Hard to Resist
It’s true to say that sugar does “feed” every cell in our body, including cancer cells. However, the term “sugar” is a broad term and can actually mean many things. Some sugars are vital nutrients. Your body uses a type of sugar called glucose to generate energy. Often referred to as “blood sugar,” it’s made from the carbohydrates we eat and it travels through the bloodstream to supply energy to our cells.
The problem comes from the sheer amount of sugar many Americans consume. The American Heart Association recommends that women should consume no more than six teaspoons per day (25 grams), and men should limit their consumption to no more than nine teaspoons per day (37 grams). Most Americans, however, eat more than double that: about 22 teaspoons—equivalent to 130 pounds of sugar each year!
Another complexity arises from the source of the sugar. Complex carbohydrates can be broken down into simpler sugars (such as glucose), which can be absorbed by the digestive system into the bloodstream. But it takes energy to break those sugars down, and it reduces the amount of simple absorbable sugars per unit of food consumed. This creates a metabolic cycle that helps maintain sugar at tolerable levels. The sugars in fruits are of the simpler forms; these include glucose, fructose and sucrose. However, these usually are accompanied with large amounts of fiber (complex carbohydrates that the digestive system cannot break down). The fiber content actually inhibits sugar absorption, which makes fruit a lot safer to eat than you’d think.
Therefore, at Hope4Cancer, we recommend anyone looking to lead a healthy lifestyle and prevent cancer should eat a balanced diet of whole foods (versus processed foods), including fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, fish, and plenty of alkaline water. This type of diet will automatically limit the amount of sugar you consume and will ensure you’re only eating sugars produced naturally in plants.
Drastically changing your diet all at once is usually not sustainable in the long term, of course, but you can take steps to slowly eliminate excess sugar and gradually adjust your body to a healthier diet.
The first step is to identify your current sources of sugar, especially those hidden sugars. Processed foods are notorious for added sugars, so take a look at the ingredient label. Obviously, if the word “sugar” appears as one of the first few ingredients, that product is extremely high in sugar. But also beware of these hidden sugar words:
All of these are sugars derived from various sources, such as fruits, milk, grains, or are forms of one of the other types. In addition, sugar often shows up in the form of common sweeteners:
- syrup (including high-fructose corn syrup)
- agave nectar
Now that you’ve identified where the sugar is, take steps to reduce it.
- Try to first reduce the portions of the sugary foods you eat. You can slowly wean yourself down without feeling like you’re going cold turkey.
- When you crave something sweet, try to replace it with a naturally sweet fruit. You’ll benefit from the cancer-fighting vitamins and antioxidants while still satisfying your sweet tooth. Buy frozen fruits (make sure they’re unsweetened!) to always have some on hand without worrying about the fruit going bad.
- Cut down on the sugary drinks! Easily the biggest source of sugar in the U.S. diet, consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks has doubled in the past 40 years. If you’re a daily juice or soda drinker, start by switching out one of those with a non-sugary drink, such as water or iced tea (unsweetened of course).
- If you’re used to dessert after lunch and dinner, start with giving up your lunch sweet. Instead, when that craving hits, immediately reach for a natural mint. It will squelch that sugary craving!
- Balance your plate for every meal. Eating a balanced meal rich in vegetables and high-fiber content will limit the absorption of sugars from your food intake. This will allow you to eat some of the foods that you enjoy (always in moderation!) without suffering the consequences.
Just don’t replace any of those sugary foods or drinks with artificial sweeteners! Animal studies have found links between those and cancer as well, so it’s best to stay away from them altogether.
Break the Hold
Sugar is such a big part of our diets, it’s often hard to make a change. But if you gradually make healthier choices, you’ll find yourself no longer craving the same amount of sugar you once did. Like any habit, you can train your body to do something healthier. And as we learn more about sugar’s connection to cancer risk, it’s becoming more and more important that we make the shift right away!