Can cutting down sugar cut down your risk for cancer?
You may have seen the headlines, “Sugar Causes Cancer,” but is the sweet substance that is so tough to resist really linked to an increased cancer risk? Does it exacerbate an existing cancer diagnosis? If you cut out the sugar can you, in effect, cut down your cancer risk?
Inside look at cancer cells
To better understand the complexity of the sugar-cancer link you first have to look at cancer cells and their makeup. Regular, healthy cells develop carbohydrates, proteins, and fat to survive. They use both sugar (glucose) and oxygen in the body as fuel to grow and flourish. In comparison, cancer and tumor cells also create their own carbs, proteins, and fats, but have less access to oxygen, so they seek out more glucose for survival. Therefore, it would appear that if you give cancer cells more energy they would continue to grow. Right? Yet, it does not work that way. The problem is that people tend to think of sugar as only the sweet white substance they add to their coffee, and not as part of a biochemical process. “All cells in our body depend on glucose (sugar), but consuming more sugar does not mean it gets diverted to feed existing cancer cells,” says David Heber, MD, PhD of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. “You can’t pick and choose which cells get glucose and you cannot slow cancer cells by depriving them of sugar through changes in diet alone.” This misconception may be based in part on a misunderstanding of the imaging that is used to detect cancer. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to detect and monitor cancer. PET uses a small amount of radioactive tracer that’s chemically linked to glucose. All tissues in your body absorb some of this tracer, but tissues that are using more energy – including cancer cells – absorb greater amounts, enabling imaging of tumors and metastatic tumor cells. This has led some people to conclude that cancer cells grow faster on sugar. This does not mean that sugar has no role in cancer prevention. It is a domino effect, and works like this: Your body uses sugar as fuel, but it needs only so much at one time. The liver converts any extra sugar into fat – and deposits it back into the bloodstream. The fat then tours through your body and is stored away in your abdomen, hips, and breast area. This extra body fat can increase your risk of many types of cancer. “Body fat can produce hormones and inflammatory proteins that can promote tumor cell growth, especially the fat found in the upper body, including the abdomen and breasts,” says Dr. Heber. A 2014 study in The Lancet found that a higher body mass index (BMI), one method to estimate body fat, increases the risk of developing some of the most common cancers, such as uterine, gallbladder, kidney, cervix, thyroid and blood. “Much of this increased risk can be traced back to extra hormones and other protein factors created by fat cells,” says Dr. Heber.
Watch your sugar intake
So how much sugar is safe to eat? Women should have no more than six teaspoons per day (100 calories), and men should have no more than nine teaspoons per day (150 calories), according to the American Heart Association. However many of us consume far more than that. You can limit your sugar intake by eliminating top sources such as colas, cakes, pastries, cookies, and ice cream. Save them for special occasions. But do not focus on sugar alone, and take an overall approach to balanced nutrition and an active lifestyle. “Increase your intake of whole fruits and vegetables with a limited amount of whole grains,” says Dr. Heber. “Together with regular exercise and limiting high fat and high sugar foods, you can reduce body fat, and protect yourself from cancer.”