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The Link Between Sugar and Cancer

A cursory Google search for “sugar and cancer” leads to all sorts of alarming headlines: “The Sugar Cancer Connection Doctors Aren’t Telling You.” “5 Reasons Cancer and Sugar are Best Friends.” “Here’s How Sugar Might Fuel the Growth of Cancer.” It’s enough to make us go through our cupboards and freezers and toss out anything sweet: our Ben & Jerry’s, that super secret stash of M&Ms we keep in our bedside nightstand, that box of yellow cake mix that’s been setting on the shelf for the past six months. But is there any truth to all that click bait? Is there actually a connection between sugar and cancer?

    First, the line of thought that “sugar feeds cancer cells” is both myth and fact. It is a fact that glucose feeds every cell in our bodies - including cancer cells. It’s how our bodies fuel themselves! In fact, our bodies are so good at running on glucose that they will make it from other sources if carbs - which is the number one source for glucose - are unavailable. So if you’re on a no-carb diet, your body will make sugar from protein and fat in order to run. Glucose is that important. However, there is a line of thought that eating less sugar in effect “starves” cancer cells, which slows their growth. This is not true.

    Here’s what we do know: there is research that does show a link to sugar and higher insulin levels, which may influence cancer cell growth. In fact, diabetes and cancer often occur together, but researchers don’t yet know why (they’re looking into it). And the consensus report includes research  that links diabetes to cancers such as liver, pancreatic, endometrial, colorectal, breast, and bladder. But all this does is a build a case for such a connection; it is not definitive proof that one exists.

    What are the risk factors for consistently elevated insulin levels? Well, one is good ol’ genetics - some people inherit cells that are “resistant” to insulin, which cause their bodies to store glucose longer than normal. Another risk factor is inactivity. Physical activity actually improves cells’ ability to use glucose, which is why exercise is so important. The third is being overweight or obese. Extra fat around the abdomen slows down your body’s ability to process insulin and clear the blood sugar out. And this can worsen any genetic tendencies you may have for high insulin levels to begin with. Consistently high insulin levels for a long period of time can actually lead to Metabolic Syndrome, where your body can no longer make insulin. Metabolic Syndrome usually signals the end of insulin resistance and the transition to Type 2 Diabetes.

    So what can you do to mitigate your risk for cancer? While there is no foolproof way to stave it off, you can make a point to eat healthier and exercise more (at least 30 minutes every day, according to the Mayo Clinic) in order to maintain healthy insulin levels and avoid diabetes. And hopefully we’ll one day know the link between diabetes and cancer, and find a cure once and for all.