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If I had a penny for every time someone asked me about sugar and cancer… or in fact expressed a genuine fear of sugar in relation to cancer…. I’d probably be a far richer woman!
With any diagnosis, there comes a lot of questions, and with questions, people crave answers. It is not uncommon therefore for those affected to turn to the internet for answers.
Today, people with cancer frequently look to Google or other search engines for alternative remedies, purported cancer ‘cures’ or anything that could give them an edge during treatment or increase their overall chances of survival. Who would blame them? Humans are hardwired to survive. And having a ‘can do’ attitude with a ‘kick cancer’ mind-set can be really beneficial from a coping perspective. The problem with deriving information from the internet is that it is not always clear what is true and what is complete and utter fabrication. And let me tell you this – there is a lot of false, misleading and potentially harmful information out there, particularly in respect to nutrition and cancer.
Sugar feeds cancer is a common claim that is thrown around all over the internet as if it were as black and white as people need oxygen to survive.
On the back of this rumour, a lot of people will avoid all sweets, chocolate, cake, ice-cream, sugary drinks (you get the gist), in the hope that they will slow the cancer growth, or more alarmingly, in fear that consuming sugar would reduce their chances of beating cancer.
The claim is an unhelpful oversimplification of a highly complex area that scientists themselves are only just starting to understand.
For starters, let’s be very clear: cutting out refined or processed sugary foods may be healthy, but alone will not kill cancer cells. Why? Well, the hypothesis is that sugar feeds cancer, but sugar goes beyond just the sweet stuff. It extends to all carbohydrates. Carbohydrates get broken down in the body into units of sugar called glucose (the body’s most readily available source of energy).
Therefore, to cut out sugar, would mean to exclude all sugars and that extends to rice, potatoes, bread, pasta, fruit and oats to name but a few. (Be warned: case reports in humans with cancer have shown that doing this can actually be a very difficult feat!)
So, you think you can still do it?
Before embarking on a carbohydrate free (or “ketogenic”) diet, it would be prudent to consider the following:
We now know that cancer cells have an affinity with other nutrients, and in particular amino acids (these are building blocks of protein – yes protein!) such as glutamine. Scientists have even suggested that in certain cancers, glutamine is the more important component. So, if we are going to start demonising sugar, should we be doing the same for other important nutrients that our bodies need to keep strong?
The problem with restricting carbohydrates is that all cells require and prefer glucose as a source of energy. Carbohydrates are important – for many things. They provide energy for the body and the brain and they provide dietary fibre to keep constipation at bay. They are such an important food group that even without carbohydrates in the diet, your body has other clever ways of getting glucose such as making it from other food sources like protein and fat stores. An important function of carbs is therefore to prevent the breakdown of proteins for energy. The breakdown of proteins could result in lost muscle, weight, strength and energy.
So yes, sugar feeds cancer cells but it also feeds every cell in the body so please think carefully before depriving your body of important nutrients.
Scientists know that cancer cells process sugar differently to normal cells. They do it rapidly and through a different mechanism. This has prompted researchers to develop drugs designed to selectively inhibit the ability of cancer cells to process sugar without interfering with this necessary process in healthy normal cells. A recent study (4), led by Arthur Dyer at University of Oxford, demonstrates how this could work. There is no doubt that researchers are working around the clock to tackle cancer from all angles.
In the meantime, my best advice to you, is firstly stop fretting!! Secondly, if you are able to eat, and are lucky to have an appetite and can physically consume food (a lot of people will lose these two everyday functions), then eat as well as you can. Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and lentils. These foods contain natural sugars, and they also contain important substances such as vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals – naturally occurring plant chemicals which are said to be good for our immunity and health.
Yes, limit the junk – we know too much sugar and processed food (especially over a long period of time) can make us gain weight, can affect our mood and energy levels and can increase the risk of long-term disease, especially if these are replacing well-balanced meals. But why not enjoy a treat now and again? A slice of cake or a few squares of chocolate on a Friday night? Life is to be enjoyed remember, not always endured.
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Boroughs LK, DeBerardinis RJ. (2015) Metabolic pathways promoting cancer cell survival and growth. Nat Cell Biol. 17:351–359. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4939711/
Choi, Y. K., & Park, K. G. (2017). Targeting Glutamine Metabolism for Cancer Treatment. Biomolecules & therapeutics, 26(1), 19-28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5746034/
Chung, H. Y., & Park, Y. K. (2017). Rationale, Feasibility and Acceptability of Ketogenic Diet for Cancer Treatment. Journal of cancer prevention, 22(3), 127-134. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5624453/
Weber, D. D., Aminazdeh-Gohari, S., & Kofler, B. (2018). Ketogenic diet in cancer therapy. Aging, 10(2), 164-165. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5842847/
Dyer A, Schoeps B, Frost S, Jakeman PG, Scott EM, Freedman J, Seymour LW. (2018) Antagonism of glycolysis and reductive carboxylation of glutamine potentiates activity of oncolytic adenoviruses in cancer cells. Cancer Res. 2018 Nov 28. pii: canres.1326.2018. http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2018/11/13/0008-5472.CAN-18-1326.long
Schmidt, M., Pfetzer, N., Schwab, M., Strauss, I., & Kämmerer, U. (2011). Effects of a ketogenic diet on the quality of life in 16 patients with advanced cancer: A pilot trial. Nutrition & metabolism, 8(1), 54. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-8-54 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3157418/