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Does Sugar Feed Cancer?
This is an oldie but goodie article from GRACE's archives. Enjoy!
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GRACE was fortunate enough to have Kelay Trentham, a nutritionist with a particular specialty as an Oncology Dietician who works at MultiCare Regional Cancer Center in Tacoma, WA, discuss several central questions about nutrition and cancer. Here are her comments. This is the first of a series of questions she discussed.


Every cell in our body uses glucose, which is the form of sugar that we distill all of our food down to for use as fuel, and cancer cells are not an exception to that. They use glucose for fuel just like other cells in our body, but one difference between a cancer cell and a normal cell is that cancer cells take up fuel at a much faster rate than normal cells. So that’s part of how they are just aberrant or abnormal cells, is that they take up nutrients, particularly glucose, at a much faster rate. You could compare it to RPMs on a car or if you were looking at your electric meter. The cancer cell’s electric meter just goes around quite a lot faster.


Simply eating sugar doesn’t promote cancer growth any more than eating anything else. I feel like this simplified concept – that sugar “feeds” cancer – that people see in the media or the internet, or sometimes in books and articles, is really not useful. Because our entire body’s primary fuel is glucose, and we need that to do all of our everyday activities.


Glucose is a sugar, and, again, lots of different kinds of foods are broken down into glucose. Things like your breads, your potatoes, peas, corn, etc. — all of those types of foods yield glucose during digestion — and then we use glucose for energy.


Now sugar may play an indirect role (in the development of cancer) if it’s eaten in excess. It can contribute to obesity. Sugar alone — refined sugar — is a concentrated source of calories, and when folks are overeating and putting on weight, we do know that obesity is a big risk factor for cancers. So excess sugar intake could contribute to the risk of cancer by contributing to obesity. But this doesn’t mean that eliminating sugar is necessarily going to reduce the rate at which cancer cells grow.


The best evidence so far, really, is that there is no direct link (between sugar and cancer). Carbohydrate is any type of sugar or starch, it’s our fuel; it’s what we use every day to keep us going.


Next: What is an “optimal diet” for someone with cancer?


6 Responses to Does Sugar Feed Cancer?


    mikem says:

    Thank you this is the most clear, concise explanation I have heard on the subject. — mikem


    Catharine says:

    Kelay -
    Thank you for the clear, concise information on this topic. I look forward to the next post on “optimal diet.”
    - Catharine


    Portland Dave says:

    Hi, new poster here. I was diagnosed w/ Stage IV NSCLC adenocarncinoma in January. Just completed radiation & 6 rounds of carbo taxol chemotherapy. I feel like your statement is out-of-date given the recent study showing rampant tumor cell growth when cancer cells were fed high-fructose corn syrup. Also I suspect that a high glycemic diet could foster growth of IGF and thereby increase tumor growth. While there may not yet be solid evidence of the latter point, it seems prudent to minimize high glycemic index foods for cancer patients. I am following David Servan-Schreiber MD, PhD diet recommendations from his 2009 book Anticancer 2nd Ed. In reading your related post on optimal nutrition, it seems like we agree on what the best things are to eat, but with the prevalence of high-fructose corn syrup as the source of sugar in so many foods, that simply dismissing the nexus of sugar and cancer is not the most prudent or accurate advice. I welcome your response or the expert opinions of the oncologists on this site. Respectfully, Dave


    Dr West says:

    I’ll try to see if Ms. Trentham can respond. I think the key is that the dietary recommendations are really whee we should converge, and that the issue is that questions like “Does Sugar Feed Cancer?” and the simplistic take-away answers people can come away with are just misleadingly binary. If the question were whether people should strive to avoid significant amounts of refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup, those of us who think the best answer to the “Does Sugar Feed Cancer?” is no would still agree on the desirability of a better diet. I don’t mean for it to sound like a cop-out to say that I think this becomes more semantic than real, but I do think that if we converge on the same practical recommendations either way, I’m not sure it really matters how we interpret an overly simplified question. I don’t think the answers are that simple.


    Apra says:

    Sugar and cancer. I was also following David Servan’s book Anti Cancer but in the end did not find anything valuable in it. The things he recommends are good being a cancer patient himself, and I am sure if every patient can be as proactive as him it would help. But we see that most patients are laid back and do not have the strength to do heir own research or make their own food.
    Taking sugar or mild in tea or coffee or in breakfast cereals is ok I believe alongwith a little icecream from time to time.
    I am so happy to read this post by Dr. West and Ms. Trentham. It takes a load off my mind as my husband still loves fresh milk and some sugar.
    Organic is good but it is not very tasty at times and to get organic milk is very difficult in our place. Even the local milkman cannot be trusted because they feed their cattle on wheat bran coming from the large flour mills, so naturally there is pesticide in the feed.

  • FaithAndHope79 says:

    Ms. Trentham, Thank you. The explanation is clear and concise. Sometimes when my friends saw me sprinkle a little bit sugar in stir-fried vegetables, they jumped, “You still eat sugar?” which made me jump. Now I can tell them not to worry.

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