Being Well

Sugar and Cancer: How Are They Related?

The link between sugar and cancer is more nuanced than rumors suggest. Like most health problems, decreasing sugar intake can help alleviate some complications.

There’s a widespread myth that sugar and cancer are related, linked to the idea that eating sugar causes cancer. Like any myth, there’s a grain of truth in that. But what exactly is that grain? All cells use sugar from the bloodstream to live and grow. But eating sugar doesn’t make cancer cells grow faster, according to the National Cancer Institute. So how are sugar and cancer related? If you eat too much — whether it’s sugar or other substances — you can gain weight, and obesity can then put you at a higher risk for cancer.

How Obesity Affects Cancer

While there are possible mechanisms suggested for the relationship between obesity and cancer, no one knows for sure what the direct link is. For example, the National Cancer Institute says that if you’re obese, you may have increased insulin levels, which might help certain tumors develop. Or it could be from the hormones produced by fat cells that affect cell growth. Whatever the cause, having additional weight doesn’t help you prevent cancer or some other disease development, like heart disease or diabetes.

Refined and processed sugar offers empty calories (meaning they offer limited to no nutritional value). Processed foods with added sugars include cakes, candies and sweetened foods. These don’t give you the vitamins, minerals and fiber to keep your body at its best. If you were to swap out 200 calories of candy with 200 calories of fruit, you’d have the same caloric intake, but the latter comes with substance and nutrition.

New Studies on Sugar and Cancer

A study published in Cancer Research in January 2016 demonstrated a potential link between sugar and cancer. It showed that mice given a higher sucrose diet increased their breast tissue tumor development, compared to mice given a nonsugar starch diet. The researchers say the data suggested that dietary sugar increased the risks of breast cancer development and metastasis. The study attracted commentary and news coverage from many sites, including the American Institute for Cancer Research, that said that while it’s interesting, it’s only one study, and it was done with mice instead of people. Even given the data from this study, the organization recommends relying instead on the thousands of study previously performed, which found no evidence of cancer directly caused by sugar intake. As well, the Mayo Clinic doesn’t support the idea that sugar helps cancer cells grow.

How to Decrease Your Risk

That said, given the indirect effect of obesity and empty calories, cancer experts, like those at the American Institute for Cancer Research, recommend you eat a diet of mostly plant-based foods, including whole grains, vegetables, beans, vegetables and fruits. If you reduce the amount of sugary drinks and sugar-added foods consumed in your diet and increase activity levels and exercise, your body will be in a better position to reduce the likelihood of getting cancer. To eliminate some risk, try taking your morning coffee without sugar or eating a piece of fruit for dessert twice a week. For more information on how foods and lifestyle might contribute to cancer or its prevention, check out the book “Anticancer: The New Way of Life” by David Servan-Schreiber.

You don’t have to eliminate all sugar from your diet to help avoid cancer. Small changes, and arming yourself with the facts about how your diet can affect your cancer chances, can lead you to a healthy future.

Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan