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Ask the Experts: Can eating sugar-rich foods give me cancer?

Updated on:4 February 2021, 18:14pm IST
The link between sugar and cancer has long been debated. But does this mean you should stop eating foods rich in sugar? Here's what an oncologist has to say.
Dr Niranjan Naik
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dandruff diet for hair
The link between sugar and cancer isn’t as simple as we think. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

You might have heard that sugar feeds cancer and we should avoid all foods and beverages containing sugar. While it may be true in some sense, we must know that every cell in our body uses blood sugar in the form of glucose for energy. However, cancer cells use them approximately 200 times more than normal cells. Tumors that start off thin, gobble up a lot of glucose and that fuels their growth further.

Where does the sugar in our body come from?

The sugar in our body comes from our diet. And I don’t mean just chocolates or desserts. Sugar is also found in the following food items:

  • Fruits which contain fructose
  • Vegetables contain glucose
  • Dairy contains lactose
  • Carbohydrates (bread, rice, pasta, etc)
sugar and cancer
Excess of everything is bad — Even sugar. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

So you see following a strict diet restriction can significantly reduce our intake of foods that are rich in nutrients that have shown to have fought cancer like fruits or whole grains. Additionally, adding a restrictive diet can often lead to more stress which can also compromise on the immune system.

While many fruits have high sugar content, they are also rich in nutrients which are otherwise known to protect us against cancer. People often exclude milk due to the sugar content—however, milk is rich in protein which is known to be in high demand while treating cancer, furthermore it is also rich in calcium. You should not club the above-mentioned powerhouse of nutrients with other high sugar food items like candies, cookies, chocolates, or cake that have high sugar content but low healthy nutrients.

How your body handles sugar is what puts your body at risk

There has been research that suggests that increased risk of cancer is not seen with higher sugar intake, but cancer risk is associated with how our body responds to sugar. If we eat sugar-rich food items all by themselves, especially if we are insulin resistant, there is a larger spike in the blood sugar levels. The spikes then result in an increased release of insulin-like growth factor (IGF). This factor has displayed to have helped cancer cells grow. Hence, if blood glucose levels are better controlled then less IGF is released which will then decrease the cancer growth.

What we should then keep in mind is that to avoid spikes in our blood sugar levels, we should not avoid all sugar containing food items, but we have to be wise while selecting the food items. If we take in adequate amount of nutrients that contain protein, fat, and fibre along with the simplest sugars then the items rich in nutrients help the body make less insulin in response to simple sugar.

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We need to choose our foods carefully

How we need to be wiser while choosing the food items is that instead of consuming a packet of potato chips, we can choose to eat nuts and dry fruits that contain simple sugar. We should always try to avoid drinking sugary beverages and excess amounts of desserts. This will ensure that the risk of cancer is reduced along with reduction in the risk of weight gain which may pose further risks of other health concerns.

The bottom line therefore is that we should limit simple sugars and refined grains, these include candies, cakes, cookies, and pies, among others. In addition, we should eliminate consumption of sugary drinks that include packaged fruit juice, energy drinks and soft drinks. Substitute the mentioned food items with naturally occurring sugar that may be found in fruits or vegetables. The numerous vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and fibre they contain do the body good. Eating healthy is not about excluding food but it is about including more healthy food items like whole grains, proteins, vegetables, and fruits.

Dr Niranjan Naik Dr Niranjan Naik

Dr Niranjan Naik is the director, surgical oncology at Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram