Cancer Education Featured

Does sugar feed cancer?


Recently you may have noticed a lot of stories in the news about sugar and cancer. Mostly there is a lot of chatter about sugar causing cancer. With so many different reports it is hard to make sense of it all. Is there any truth to these claims?

The short answer is no! Let’s take a look at why.

What is sugar?

Sugar is just another word for simple or small carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates make up sweet tasting foods like table sugars or fruits. Smaller carbohydrates come together to form more complex carbohydrates that are found in grains, vegetables legumes, nuts, seeds, milk and other dairy. The important thing to note is that all carbohydrates get broken down into the same molecules by your body. Your body cannot tell the difference between the carbohydrates in vegetables or the carbohydrates in table sugar. It will break it down into the same thing.

Sugars feed all of the cells of the body

That’s right. Sugars (carbohydrates) give energy to all cells of the body, including cancer cells. It would be great if sugars only “fed” cancer cells. Then you could take it out of your diet and prevent cancer cell growth. Sadly that is simply not the case. Sugars give energy to all cells in the body, which in turn fuels activity and exercise as well as helps to maintain muscle in your body. Depriving your body of sugars can actually be harmful and it is not recommended.

Can you eat as much sugar as you like?

No! According to Pauline Wisdom-Gilliam, a Registered Dietitian at the Odette Cancer Centre, “Sugar, when eaten in the right amounts (especially if paired with protein and/or healthy fat – eg. a piece of fruit and some nuts), can fit into a well balanced diet.”

How can you make sugars a healthy part of your diet?

Wisdom-Gilliam has put together a list of tips to help make sure sugars are a healthy part of your diet.

Too much sugar = thumbs down

  • Too much of anything is a bad thing. Sugars are no different. Too much sugar can result in excess weight and body fat. Fat cells produce high levels of hormones and proteins that can cause inflammation that is linked to increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

Watch out for added sugars

  • Added sugars are any sugars that are added to food during processing and preparation. Foods like pop, candy, chocolate and some cereals all have added sugars.
  • Follow the American Heart Association recommendations on added sugar intake:
    • Women – 6 teaspoons/day (25 grams)
    • Men  – 9 teaspoons/day   (37 grams)

Whether sugar is natural or refined, worry about the amount

  • To the body a sugar molecule is a sugar molecule whether refined (table sugar, corn syrup) or unrefined (molasses, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup)
  • The amount is the problem, stick to 25 grams a day for women and 37 grams a day for men.

Eat as many whole, healthy, unprocessed foods as you can

  • Eat vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. They not only are a great source of sugars but they contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.

The bottom line is all foods with sugar feed the cells within your body, including cancer cells. If you don’t include any sugar in your diet it means your body does not get the fuel it needs to function. Eating a variety of foods in moderation is the best way to stay healthy and ensure your body is getting all the nutrients it needs.

American Heart Association recommended added sugar intake.

Nutrition for caregivers

Taking care of a loved one with cancer can be hard on you mentally and physically. Keeping yourself healthy is an important part of being a caregiver but how do you juggle your own health and wellbeing with the needs of your loved ones with cancer?

Tracey Rapier, a Registered Dietitian at the Odette Cancer Centre, has put together a list of health tips for caregivers to keep energy levels up and eat a healthy diet:

Stay hydrated

  • Dehydration can cause a variety of problems from simple thirst to low blood pressure and increased heart rate. At extremes dehydration can affect your kidneys which can be dangerous.
  • Water or other calorie free drinks like herbal tea are the best choices if you are trying stay hydrated throughout the day. The 8 cups of water a day rule is great but the amount of fluids you must drink per day depends on many factors like how much you exercise. For more information on how much fluid you need to drink a day visit EatRight Ontario.

Eat enough fruits and vegetables

  • Canada food guide recommends 7-10 servings of vegetables and fruit per day. A serving is the equivalent of a piece of fruit that fits the palm of your hand like a medium apple or banana or a cup of diced vegetables.
  • Fruits and vegetables have also been shown to boost immune function, which will help prevent you from getting sick so you can continue to provide the care your loved ones need.

For more information on the types of fruits and vegetables you should be eating, check out the follow this link to the Canada Food Guide:

Maintain energy with quick and simple meals and snacks

The most important thing is that eat a well balanced diet. There are many quick meals and snacks you can make in minutes or in advance that will pack a great nutrition punch.  Here are some meal ideas for staying healthy:

Breakfast: Smoothie with frozen pre-cut fruit, plain Greek yogurt, a few tablespoons of ground flax seed and water, milk or soy milk as a base.

Snack: Plain Yogurt, fruit and a few tablespoons of ground flax, chia seeds or hemp hearts

Lunch: Hummus with whole wheat pita and raw pre-cut veggies for dipping

Snack: A handful of almonds with a fresh fruits

Dinner: A few sliced boiled eggs (cooked ahead), whole grain toast and sliced tomato or a vegetarian chili        

Portion size matters

  • Carry healthy meals and snacks with you when you are out and about and make sure to eat at at regular times so you don’t eat too much too often
  • Eat when you feel hunger begin and stop when you are full. This will help your body get the energy it needs without overeating.
  • If you are eating on the go and buying meals choose wisely by avoiding high fat, fried or greasy foods and eat snacks that are low in sugar and fat.

Bottom Line

Ultimately staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet will help caregivers stay healthy and energetic while providing the care required for their loved ones.

The information in this article has been taken from the “Myth-Busting Nutrition Panel Discussion and Q&A with Odette Dietitians” presentation delivered by the Clinical Nutrition team of the Patient and Family Support Program, at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre.

About the author

Patient & Family Education, Cancer

Blog posts from Patient & Family Education team at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre. Visit the Patient & Family Education website for more resources, workshops and information.

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