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Does Sugar Feed or Cause Cancer?

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Sugar and Cancer

Sugar and Cancer

The theory that sugar feeds cancer began in 1931 when Dr. Otto Warburg won the nobel prize for his paper on the metabolism of tumors.  He theorized that the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar.  In 2003 we completed the human genome project and to our surprise learned that less than 5% of cancers have a genetic cause.  At this juncture, we began to explore epigenetics (causes other than the genes) as the initiators of cellular mutations that can become cancer in the body.  Now we can state that processed sugar could fit into an epigenetic event that can lead to an increased risk of cancer.

It is well known and widely accepted that processed sugars are a public health problem.  Processed sugars have been refined which means only the sugar has been removed from the original food item.  Most sugar consumed today comes from sugarcane, beets or corn and in the processed form have many names including cane sugar, turbinado sugar, fructose sugar or corn syrup fructose.  The types of words you may see on a label include sugar, syrup or anything ending in an “ose”, for example:  sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, maple syrup, molasses, turbinado sugar, or sorghum syrup.  It has been estimated that sugar consumption in the U.S. has risen from 5 pounds PER YEAR per person in the 19th century to 2-3 pounds PER WEEK per person today.

Excessive consumption of simple sugars has been associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, mood disorders, nervous disorders, mental illness and who knows what else we will discover in the future.  Sugar was one of the first processed foods and has led to a myriad of nutrient devoid, high calorie options that can cause health issues.  Many of these foods are called simple carbohydrates and include cereals, breads, cookies and the like, however sugar is now added to most foods in the U.S. including yogurt, ketchup and coffee drinks.

In the realm of cancer, there is no one cause, however a combination of multiple initiators that lead to a tipping point resulting in a cellular mutation that is not corrected or cleared out by the immune system.  This may then lead to a tumor and the diagnosis of cancer.  Once there is a mutation in a cell, that cell changes its metabolism and function and requires large amounts of sugar to fuel its craziness.  Therefore there are increased receptors for sugar and increased influence by IGF-1 on cancer cells and in essence, sugar will feed cancer.  This occurs for insulin-like growth factor and plays a major role in cell proliferation and inhibits apoptosis (cell death).  Broccoli on the other hand leads to cell signaling that favors healthy cells and makes it more difficult for cancer cells to grow.

What does this mean for you?  It is time to return to a whole foods diet and remove processed sugars from your diet.  This is no easy task in the United States where our food chain, even in organics and supposedly healthy choices is laden with sugar.  The World Health Organization (WHO), in an effort to improve health globally, recently published sugar guidelines and suggested ways to curb global sugar consumption and acknowledges a program in France that encourages whole foods in their school systems.  WHO recommends keeping sugar consumption to below 10% of total calories per day and suggests keeping it below 5% for further health benefits.  I personally recommend my cancer patients discontinue processed sugars completely for at least 6 months and then reevaluate.  For an average daily diet containing 2,000 calories, 10% of total calories is equivalent to about 50 grams of sugar or around 12.5 teaspoons where 5% is approximately 6 teaspoons.   One 330ml (11.14 ounces) coke cola contains 9 teaspoons of sugar and would put you over your 5% for the day.   Remember that this 5% is still considerably higher than what we are meant to eat.  I encourage you to educate yourself on what a whole foods diet contains and to make healthier choices.



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