This is one of the most common questions I get! I’ve written on it 6 times so far (I guess this makes 7!). And it’s not just me. It’s oncology dietitians and treatment center employees everywhere!
Here’s the bottom line:
Every cell in the body requires glucose for fuel, including cancer cells. So sugar does feed cancer. BUT, sugar also feeds the rest of your body and you cannot pick and choose which cells get what nutrients/fuel. For those who are going through treatment, remember that your healthy cells need energy especially during this time. Avoiding sugar completely will not help treatment, but it could leave your healthy cells low on energy.
At this point, it has not been shown that eliminating dietary sources of sugar and carbohydrate actually results in slower growth of tumors. It does result in your body having to work extra hard to make the glucose that it needs to function.
Here are my previous articles on the topic:
- The Mystery of Sugar: How Your Body Digests It and the Difference Between Simple Sugars and Complex Carbs.
- Does Sugar Feed Cancer? It’s not a simple question!!
- Insulin, Sugar and Cancer: The Facts
- The Connection Between Diabetes and Cancer
- Does Sugar Feed Cancer? Part II
- Does Sugar Feed Cancer? Part I
Recently, our national group of Board Certified Specialists in Oncology Nutrition had a discussion about how to address this question when patients ask. Angelea Bruce, RD, CSO, CNSC, oncology dietitian for Sharp Healthcare in San Diego, uses this analogy for helping her patients understand. I REALLY like it!!
Cells use glucose the way cars use gas!
“Every cell in the body requires glucose for fuel, including cancer cells.
We get glucose from all carbohydrate foods. If we don’t eat enough carbohydrates, the cells (normal and cancer) still demand a source of glucose and the body makes it by breaking down protein from our muscles and immune system. In order to minimize muscle loss and immune compromise, we need to provide a consistent source of carbohydrates through the diet whenever possible.
Cells use glucose the way cars use gas. With normal driving, our car uses varying amounts of gas depending on whether we are idling or accelerating. Normal cells divide at varying rates, some every 3 days and some every 3 months, or more. During cell division, more glucose is used, much like an accelerating car uses more gas. But after cell division, it returns to more of an idling state, using less glucose.
Cancer cells are like cars with the accelerator stuck to the floor, using glucose at high rates, because they are dividing at much faster rates than normal cells. If you still want to be able to drive your car, you cannot fix it if it has the accelerator stuck down simply by letting it run out of gas. For the same reason, you cannot starve cancer cells of glucose because you will also be depriving your healthy cells of fuel. The cancer cells are much more tenacious than the normal ones and will persist at the expense of the rest of the body.”
Obviously, we don’t want people to over consume simple sugars. It is a reasonable goal to balance carb portions with protein and fat in order to minimize high circulating levels of insulin and IGF-1. And of course, getting most of your carbs from whole grains, vegetables and fruits is a very nutritious way to eat, as opposed to getting most of your carbs from added sugars.
You can also read more in this Cure Magazine article: The Sweet Truth: Does Sugar Feed Cancer? and this other Cure Magazine article that covers even more in depth: Sweet and Vicious Sugar.
If you’re not convinced at this point, I’m afraid that there’s no other evidence I can present that would change your mind.
Usually, I find that the “Sugar Feeds Cancer” myth originates or is purported through the alternative therapy circles, which can be a dangerous place to put your trust. This article gives an oncologists view of some of the treatments that patients choose based on claims of “Natural Healing.” I found it to be very true to my experience working as a practitioner somewhere in between clinical cancer care and integrative therapies.
It’s a sad day when a patient chooses a therapy that’s not been proven (or has been proven to NOT work), over a traditional treatment that has a good chance of extending the person’s life.
Want some guidance on evaluating alternative therapies? Check out my articles here:
- Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Therapies
- Alternative Therapies: Are You Getting Scammed?
- Are They A Quack? Nutrition Information: Who To Trust?
Your best bet is to combine the evidence-based cancer treatment with things that promote the health and well-being of your whole body. And by the way, those things that promote health and well-being should not cost you a fortune.