We could avoid about three of every 10 common types of cancer if we would change certain diet and lifestyle habits, says the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research. A good place to start, they recommend, is to eat a nutritionally balanced diet and stay away from tobacco and excess alcohol.
What about sugar? Doesn’t that feed cancer cells? It sure does. And it feeds healthy cells as well. Even if we entirely avoided all carbohydrates (sugars and starches that break down to sugar), our bodies would use protein in an alternate recipe to make glucose (sugar) to fuel our cells. It is not true, therefore, that we can starve cancer cells if we avoid all sugar.
That is just the beginning of our confusion about sugar and cancer, according to an article by registered dietitian Karen Collins in a recent issue of Environmental Nutrition.
We know from a recent large study in France, for example, that the more “ultra-processed” foods we eat, the higher our risk is to develop cancer. Basically, these are the ones that line the shelves of most convenience stores. They are in a package and the main ingredients are fat, sugar and salt and not much else.
The confusion, says Collins, is why highly processed foods loaded with sugar increase our cancer risk. Here are some facts:
Too much sugar — not sugar itself — puts us at an increased risk for certain cancers, say experts. That’s because high intakes of sugar (such as when you swig down a 20-ounce soda) goes quickly into the blood stream. This prompts the pancreas to secrete a load of insulin to tame the surge of sugar in the blood. It’s the high insulin levels, not just the high sugar, that stimulates the growth of cancer cells, researchers now suggest.
Excess sugar, such as the 240 calories in that 20-ounce soda (about 16 teaspoons of added sugar), is a great vehicle for getting a load of calories into our bodies. Extra calories are easily converted to extra love handles. And this increase in body fat does raise our risk for several types of cancer.
So why do the American Institute for Cancer Research and other experts recommend we limit foods and drinks that are loaded with added sugar? To keep our weight in check and make room for a variety of foods we know to be protective against cancer such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.
Here’s one easy way to start. Take the time to read the label, even if you’re in a hurry and starving. No fiber? No vitamins, minerals or protein? Added sugar, salt and fat the top ingredients? Put it down, step back slowly and run for water, nuts or fruit.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.