We already know that sugar is addictive and contributes to obesity; but what’s the deal with sugar and cancer? There’s a lot of confusing information out there about sugar’s role in cancer development. Let us help clarify.
It’s Not That Simple
A prevalent theory circulating the internet is that sugar causes cancer by fueling cancer cells. While it is true that glucose (aka sugar) is the primary fuel for most cells (including cancer cells), the link between sugar and cancer is really not that simple. Instead, much of the research suggests that sugar’s connection to cancer is more likely the result of increased levels of insulin. Chronically elevated levels of insulin can result from consistent consumption of refined carbohydrates. (Reminder, refined carbs are the kinds found in processed snacks, baked goods and white bread.) Unrefined carbohydrates, however, provide nutrients like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Therefore, cutting all carbs is not the answer, but instead to focus on the quality of carbohydrates consumed.
Sugar and Insulin Resistance
In the Women’s Health Initiative Study, women with higher levels of insulin had an increased risk for colorectal and endometrial cancers. So what’s the connection between sugar, insulin and cancer? After eating a sugar-laden meal or drinking a large soda, your blood sugar spikes, which stimulates your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is a hormone that stimulates the uptake of blood sugar by your cells for use as energy. This regulatory mechanism is normally quite effective unless you are consistently eating large amounts of refined carbohydrates. Regular consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates will create a state of hyperinsulinemia (high insulin levels in the blood), which may lead to insulin resistance. High levels of insulin can indirectly stimulate the release of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). IGF-1 is responsible for cell proliferation and consistently elevated levels may promote the growth of cancer cells.
Sugar and Obesity
We can't talk about sugar without talking about obesity. A Cancer Prevention Study suggests that 14% of cancer deaths in men and 20% in women were the result of obesity. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are largely to blame for the obesity epidemic so in this way, sugar may be indirectly (or not so indirectly…) contributing to the increasing rates of cancer.
Long story short…
Consistently consuming high levels of refined carbohydrates can have negative metabolic effects on the body. Over time, these negative effects may play a role in the growth of cancer. That being said, completely eliminating carbohydrates from your diet is not the answer. Your body, and especially your brain, needs glucose to function. Ditch refined, simple sugars for complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables.