Managing Treatments

Does Sugar Feed Cancer? Sidestep the Myths and Eat to Optimize Healing

Sugar doesn't feed your cancer cells, but it shouldn't be a staple of your diet during treatment. Find out how to optimize your diet during treatment to stay strong.

The question comes up frequently when discussing cancer and diet: Does sugar feed cancer?

It’s not a very useful question, and it creates unnecessary fear, says Carole Havrila, a registered dietitian and an oncology nutrition specialist for UVA Cancer Center. “It’s more of an indirect relationship,” she explains. “Sugar has a lot of excess calories which leads to being overweight or obese [which is] a risk factor for cancer.”

What to Eat During Cancer Treatment

Havrila recommends a different approach: focus on nourishing your body. Eat to build the strength and resilience you need to regain your health. The National Cancer Institute explains that your body requires extra nutrition to recover from surgery, fight off infection, restore blood counts and otherwise heal from cancer and its treatment.

A positive approach, focusing on actions you can take rather than what not to do, can be easier to sustain long-term. For most patients, she emphasizes a variety of foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and then you can enjoy something sweet in a small amount. Each case and each patient is unique, however, and her recommendations are tailored to each patient’s specific needs and dietary preferences.

Why A Dietitian Is Important

The question of what to eat during treatment is confusing. Havrila recommends you start working with a dietitian as soon as possible after diagnosis. Dietitians can discuss your meal habits and your food preferences and help you make healthy and sustainable adjustments to your diet in a way that works for you.

Some cancer patients are surprised to find they’ve gained weight through their chemotherapy treatment. This isn’t uncommon for some cancers such as early stage breast cancer. Involving a dietitian at the beginning of treatment can help create an eating plan and reduce the risk of this frustrating side effect.

Many patients lose too much weight. Treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy, and the cancer itself, may limit the foods you can eat and your body’s ability to digest them. These treatments can also change the way the food tastes. Working with a registered dietitian is especially helpful in this case. Havrila endorses a team approach, working with the doctors, nurses and palliative care specialists to ensure side effects, such as nausea, are controlled as well as possible and perhaps even bringing in social workers to see if in-home care can help improve the diet. Changes to the diet may also help alleviate some unpleasant side effects of treatment you may be experiencing.

So Does Sugar Feed Cancer?

You already know Havrila says no, and so does the Mayo Clinic. It’s still best to limit your sugar intake to make sure the calories you consume are providing your body the nutrients it needs. Sugar should be less than 10 percent of your daily calories, Havrila explains. You’re lowering your sugar consumption while increasing nutrition, so your body is better able to heal, but sugar doesn’t need to be entirely eliminated. You can still have treats occasionally.

Havrila provides her patients with some preparation tricks that will allow more of the foods they like for less sugar. “I ask the patients what they like to eat, and then we find alternatives for the sugar content.” There are many recipes for foods, such as brownies and other treats, where the refined sugar has been replaced with pureed fruit or other sweeteners like date or coconut sugar, which provide some nutritional value.

The key is to make sure nourishing your body is prioritized over feeding your sweet tooth so you can remain strong and healthy.

Interested in learning more about making healthy food choices during cancer treatment? Set up an appointment with a dietitian.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley