Sugar is villanized, and rightly so, as a significant contributor to our chronic disease health crisis. Many include cancer, the second leading cause of death in the US, among the diseases that may be caused by excessive sugar consumption. Contrary to what is commonly circulated on the internet, however, information from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute state that sugar has not been shown to have a direct role in cancer development. While a direct role has not been well-established, some evidence suggests there may be a link between sugar and cancer that still warrants consideration.

Many that claim a direct link between sugar and cancer cite evidence that cancer uses glucose, a type of sugar, as its primary fuel source. While evidence from scientific studies does suggest cancer primarily uses glucose, the current scientific opinion is that the glucose did not cause the cancer to form, but the use of glucose as a fuel source is simply an adaptation of all fast growing cells. To support their rapid growth, cancer cells have been shown to alter their processing of glucose to one that doesn’t rely on oxygen. This allows the cell to more quickly convert the glucose into a usable form of energy to support their rapid growth. Glucose didn’t cause the cancer, cancer simply adapted to prefer glucose as a fuel source.

The inevitable question then is, could you starve cancer by depriving it of glucose? Possibly. Unfortunately, all carbohydrate, this includes whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables, is converted into glucose and could be used as fuel for cancer growth. All carbohydrate would need to be eliminated from the diet, not just sugar, to have any notable effect on cancer growth. There is interest in a dietary approach to cancer treatment known as the ketogenic diet which does just that. Following the ketogenic diet, individuals consume primarily meats and oils to avoid carbohydrate. Currently it has not been investigated sufficiently to determine efficacy or safety, however, and it may be difficult for many to follow.

The possible sugar cancer connection may lie in is sugar’s role in the development of obesity. While there are a variety of contributors to obesity, it is generally accepted that excess sugar intake may be a prime contributor to its development. Obesity is estimated to be responsible for 4% of cancer in men and 7% in women according to National Cancer Institute data. There especially seems to be a large correlation between estrogen-positive cancers, like breast and endometrial cancer, and obesity, possibly explaining the larger burden of obesity on cancer development among women. Fat cells release a variety of hormones, one of which is estrogen. The excessive amounts of estrogen produced during obesity may increase the risk of estrogen positive cancers. Other hormones produced by fat cells are also thought to possibly play a role in cancer development.

Type 2 diabetes, an obesity-related disease often associated with excess sugar consumption according to some research, could be a risk factor for many types of cancer and may be another link between sugar and cancer. The reason for this association is not clear; but some evidence suggests that high insulin levels, as well as other metabolic changes associated with diabetes, may contribute to the development and progression of cancer. Type 2 diabetes, and obesity in general, are also associated with increased inflammation in the body, which could also contribute to the development of cancer according to some research.

Looking for additional reasons to kick the sugar habit this holiday season? Remember the potential role of sugar in cancer development. While the delectable holiday treats and feasts may be tempting, eat sugary foods in moderation. In addition to limiting sugar, implement other elements of a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management, to help maintain a healthy weight.

By Ron Beckstrom, MS, RD, HFS
Genesis PURE Product and Research Specialist

This blog and its contents are provided for nutrition information purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information and topics may not apply to every individual and sometimes are based on alternative healthy philosophies rather than traditional scientific views. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any health or nutrition concerns you may have. The information in this article is not intended to promote any specific product, or for the prevention or treatment of any disease and should not be a substitution any medical needs or advice.