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Myth or fact: Does sugar feed cancer cells?

cancer spelled out on sugar cubes

The relationship between sugar and cancer has been the subject of public debate for decades. If you or a loved one are facing cancer, it’s likely a question you’ve considered as well.

The truth is blood sugar, also known as glucose, feeds all your cells, including cancer cells. “Because many healthy foods with cancer-fighting and immune-boosting nutrients contain sugar, cutting out all sources of sugar isn’t the best solution. Luckily, there is a lot you can do with your diet and lifestyle to prevent cancer and support treatment, says Lynne Groeger, M.S., R.D., C.S.O., Registered Dietitian specializing in oncology nutrition with Riverside Cancer Care Center.

Sugar and cancer

When you eat, your blood sugar rises as your body breaks down food to use for energy. The sugar in your blood will act as fuel for all your cells. This includes healthy cells as well as cancer cells.

Cancer cells tend to be more active than healthy cells and use more of any available fuel, like blood sugar. So under a microscope or scan, they appear to go crazy when more sugar is available.

So just avoid sugar, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Your body turns carbohydrates into blood sugar, even healthy carbohydrates like berries, Greek yogurt and beans. And, your healthy cells still need fuel too, so starving them along the way might do more harm than good.

And, if you are having a hard time keeping on weight during cancer treatment you don’t want to cut out entire groups of healthy foods.

“A well-balanced diet during treatment is important to support healthy immune function and maintain muscle mass. It’s not beneficial to cut out whole groups of healthy foods like fruits in an effort to avoid sugar,” says Mrs. Groeger. 

A lifestyle strategy to keep cancer at bay

Research shows that extended periods of high blood sugar and high insulin, the hormone that helps manage blood sugar, may influence cancer cell growth rather than any one particular food.

To keep the risk of cancer low and to slow down growth of existing cancer, you can adopt a lifestyle that keeps blood sugar consistently in a healthy range. The American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Societyrecommend that you:

  • Choose high-fiber carbohydrates that don’t spike blood sugar like whole fruits, beans, lentils, vegetables, whole grains and fresh herbs.
  • Avoid quickly digested carbohydrates that raise blood sugar fast including soda, juice, candy and desserts.
  • Balance meals and snacks to include protein, fiber and healthy fats – these components slow down digestion and blood sugar spikes.
  • Get moving! Exercise and physical activity throughout the day naturally lower blood sugar as glucose is used to fuel muscles.
  • Manage stress. Stress raises blood sugar even without food! Make time for relaxing activities like nature walks, puzzles and time with friends.

Cancer myths cause more harm than good

Our body is designed to use blood sugar as fuel, so while sugar does feed cancer cells it also feeds healthy cells. Oversimplifying the sugar and cancer debate can cause more harm than good, creating stress and anxiety around food and mealtime. Focus on overall lifestyle changes, rather than worrying about one food, to benefit your health.

Do you need help with making lifestyle changes to support healthy blood sugar? Learn more about our oncology nutritionist by visiting Integrative Medicine or calling 757-594-3099.

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