Myth #1: Sugar Feeds Cancer

As cancer becomes more prevalent, many people start to look for lifestyle changes to either prevent or delay the progression of cancer. Some may go to the point of adapting to superstitions and misperceptions about cancer. Throughout the next couple weeks, one of our amazing bloggers Camy Leung will be discussing some common myths on cancer and hopefully revealing some truths and insight to help you make more informed decisions on lifestyle changes.

Myth #1: Cancer patients should stop eating sugar.

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For years, there has been an ongoing debate on whether sugar “feeds” cancer cells. There have been various studies done that discuss the role of sugar in cancer development, progression and metastasis. However, the causal relationship between sugar and cancer has never been conclusively defined.

Truth: Simply put, all cells (especially the brain) feed on glucose. Cancer cells simply have different metabolic properties than normal cells.

Here’s the science of it. The misperception that sugar feeds cancer most likely comes from that fact that the radiotracer, 2-deoxy-2-[fluorine-18]fluoro-D-glucose (FDG), commonly used in PET imaging to detect or stage cancer is a glucose analogue. While normal cells obtain 30+ ATP (our energy currency) per molecule of glucose, cancer cells opt for a much less efficient pathway whereby only approximately 2 ATP are formed per molecule of glucose. In this sense, cancer cells have a “sweet tooth” as more glucose is consumed to meet energy needs. This is the reason why FDG can be used to detect cancer cells.

Based on this observation, it would make sense to say that cancer patients should stop eating sugar to cut off ATP production in cancer cells. However, it is important to remember that all cells require glucose to maintain appropriate energy levels. Also, we should be aware that sugar is present in many foods we eat including: fruits, vegetables and carbohydrate sources.

In terms of lifestyle changes, it may be beneficial for all individuals to decrease the amount of simple sugar intake. This is not necessarily because sugar feeds cancer cells, but because an excessive amount of sugar can lead to conditions such as obesity and diabetes which are generally associated with poor prognosis in cancer. That being said, there is nothing wrong with having a piece of chocolate every once in a while. Just make sure you are aware of hidden sugars in your treats and look out for ingredients that end with “-ose”!

These include:

  • glucose
  • sucrose (white sugar)
  • fructose (fruit sugar)
  • dextrose
  • maltose
  • lactose

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For more information, take a look at these articles:

  • Penson, R.T. Sugar fuels cancer. 2009; 1021-1027.
  • Yeluri, S. et al. Cancer’s craving for sugar: an opportunity for clinical exploitation. Cancer Res. Clin. Oncol. 2009; 135: 867-877.
  • Klement, R.J. and Kammerer, U. Is there a role for carbohydrate restriction in the treatment and prevention of cancer? Metab. (Lond). 2011; 8:75.

To know about hidden sugars in common foods, check out these sites: