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The Age-Old Question: Does Sugar Cause Cancer?

I hear this question all of the time, "Does sugar cause cancer? If I eat sugar, am I going to get cancer or is my cancer going to grow?"

Is sugar the culprit?

Well ... just because you consume sugar does not mean that you will get cancer or that cancer you have will have a growth explosion. On the flip side, scientists are connecting obesity to cancer. In fact, a 2015 article by Jennifer Castoro for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) is headlined, "Obesity Could Soon Be the Leading Preventable Cause of Cancer in the United States." (Hmmm, will patients one day be asked, "Oh, were you fat?" instead of "Oh, did you smoke?" Will the stigma be the same?)

In December 2016, another MSKCC article, "No Sugar, No Cancer? A Look at the Evidence," was published. Once more, obesity, not sugar itself, is seen as the link to cancer. Fat cells, once thought to be simply a way to store fat, are actually signaling cells. In fact, they "are a major regulator of inflammation in the body."1 Inflammation can cause damage to the DNA of cells, which in turn may turn malignant.

Sugar, in and of itself, will not cause cancer or tumor growth. The reason is that your body maintains a certain blood glucose level. If you eat less sugar, your body will simply convert other resources to glucose. The MSKCC article about sugar says that it's very hard to affect glucose levels simply by changing your diet.1 The fact is, your body has to have a certain amount of sugar to function. And, at present, there is no way to tell normal cells they can have glucose and cancer cells that they cannot.

Looking to the research

According to an article published by Cancer Research UK:

"Glucose is the basic fuel that powers every single one of our cells. If we eat or drink things that are high in glucose, such as fizzy drinks, the glucose gets absorbed straight into our blood ready for our cells to use. If a starchy food, such as pasta, is on the menu, the enzymes in our saliva and digestive juices break it down and convert it into glucose. And if for some reason there’s no carbohydrate in our diet, cells can turn fat and protein into glucose as a last resort, because they need glucose to survive."2

An article published by another leading cancer center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, corroborates this. "Does Sugar Cause Cancer?" says that avoiding sugar is not the answer to preventing cancer.3 After all, as noted above, sugar (glucose) is required to keep our vital organs functioning. In fact, cutting out too much sugar (carbohydrates) could even damage our health by "eliminating foods that are good sources of fiber and vitamins."2

A healthy diet is still important

Nevertheless, we should monitor the amount of sugar we eat because sugars do contribute to obesity. The American Heart Association recommends that women eat no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day and men should have no more than nine teaspoons per day. Most of us consume far more.

Remember that sugar is not just in cookies, candy, and cake. Canned and processed foods are loaded with it. Labels may not show "sugar" as an ingredient, but watch for the words fructose, lactose, sucrose, maltose, glucose, and/or dextrose.2 Keep in mind that natural sugars (molasses, agave, honey, maple syrup) actually have antioxidants in them that can help you fight cancer. However, they are still rich in calories so care should be taken when consuming them.

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