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Humanity’s Love Affair with Sugar: But Does It Feed Cancer?

Humans love of sugar goes back over two millennia. The sweetness of sugar is one of life’s great pleasures. People’s love for sweets is so visceral, food companies lure consumers to their products by adding sugar to almost everything they make: yogurt, ketchup, fruit snacks, breakfast cereals and even supposed health foods like granola bars.

People often ask, Does sugar feed cancer?

Sugar is not a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance. However, over-consumption of sugar, particularly added sugars in processed beverages and foods, can contribute to obesity which is an important risk factor for cancer. There is no evidence that consuming sugar makes cancer cells grow faster or causes cancer.

There is a view that sugar “feeds” cancer cells. Most cancer cells grow faster than normal cells and therefore require more energy. It has been shown that glucose metabolism is often altered in cancer cells to meet the increased demand for glucose. However, this does not mean that consuming sugar will make cancer cells grow faster or cause cancer. All foods are broken down into glucose as all cells, not just cancer cells, require glucose for energy.

Let’s take a look at what sugar is – the fuel of life.

Sugar comes in many different forms. The simplest ones are single molecules like glucose and fructose, a couple sugars you might have heard of. These molecules of simple sugars can stick together. For example, one glucose molecule sticking to one fructose molecule becomes sucrose – also known as table sugar.

Combinations of these molecules can add up into long chains that make up complex sugars, often referred to as carbohydrates. These are our body’s main source of energy. As chains of sugar get longer, they lose their sweet taste. These chains are called polysaccharides and are a large component of the starchy foods we eat like rice, bread, pasta, and potatoes.

So, while some foods may not taste sweet, they can still contain sugar in a complex form. And this is good, because our bodies can break down complex sugars into simple sugars like glucose and use it for fuel.

Our body is made of millions of cells, and each type of cell has a different job – from muscle cells that help us move, to nerve cells that help us feel.

While their jobs in the body may differ, one thing all these cells have in common is that they need energy to survive and perform their duties. They get this energy from a molecule called ATP, which they make by breaking down glucose in a complex chemical process called glycolysis.

So, glucose is the basic fuel that powers every single one of our cells.

Cancer cells and sugar:

It’s here that sugar and cancer start to collide because cancer is a disease of cells.

Cancer cells usually grow quickly, multiplying at a fast rate, and that requires a lot of energy. That means they need lots of glucose.

Here’s where the myth that sugar fuels cancer was born: if cancer cells need lots of glucose, then cutting sugar out of our diet must help stop cancer from growing, and could even stop it from developing in the first place, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. All our healthy cells need glucose too, and there’s no way of telling our bodies to let healthy cells have the glucose they need without also giving it to cancer cells. And cancer cells also need lots of other nutrients too, like amino acids and fats; it’s not just sugar they crave.

The important thing to remember is to limit the amount of sugar you consume.

The American Heart Association recommends no more then 24 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar for women and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men per day.

Is there a difference between natural sugar and added sugar?

Natural Sugar:

Natural sugars occur in whole, unprocessed foods such as milk, fruits, vegetables, and grains.  Natural sugars come as part of an overall healthy “package” containing other nutrients your body needs, while added sugars are devoid of any benefits other than calories.  There isn’t usually a lot of natural sugar present in foods.  Even a sweet fruit like an apple has only 19 grams of natural sugar.  And an apple also has 3 grams of fiber as well as vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, all of which are important to overall energy, health, and immunity.

Added Sugars:

Added sugars include any sugars or caloric sweeteners that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation.   For instance, a 20-ounce bottle of soda has 69 grams of added sugar.  Soda also has no fiber or other nutritional benefits, it’s simply just empty calories.

The nutrition facts label can tell you if a food has added sugar. On the label, total sugar is listed and just below that is the amount of added sugar. If the food item contains no added sugar, then all the sugar in the product is natural sugar. Try to keep the amount of added sugar to 1 gram or less.

Nutritious Recipes to Try

Mediterranean Vegetable Spaghetti – Makes 2 servings
Click here for easy to print version
Photo and recipe courtesy of forksoverknives.com

10 ounces whole wheat spaghetti, (brown rice spaghetti for a gluten-free version)
1 red bell pepper, cubed small
1 yellow bell pepper, cubed small
2 plum tomatoes, sliced into eights
Salt to taste
½ jalapeno, diced into small pieces
2 tablespoons dried Italian seasoning
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 zucchini halved then sliced into thin half-rounds
1 bunch of spinach, chopped
¼ cup black olives, chopped


1. Bring the pasta water to a boil.
2. Place the chopped peppers, plum tomatoes, salt, jalapeno, and Italian seasoning into a saucepan. Add ¼ cup water and allow the mix to simmer and gently cook down to form the sauce. If the liquid dries up before the tomatoes and peppers start to release their juice, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time.
3. After a few minutes, add the tomato paste and the apple cider vinegar.
4. Cook the spaghetti according to the package directions.
5. Once the tomato and peppers begin to meld into a sauce, add the cherry tomatoes, zucchini slices, and the spinach. Mix well and cook for about 5 to 7 minutes.
6. Drain the pasta, then pour the sauce over the pasta and stir. Sprinkle the olives, and a dash of extra Italian seasoning onto the sauce.

Creamy Broccoli Apple Salad – Makes 8 servings
Click here for an easy to print version
Photo and recipe courtesy of American Institute for Cancer Research

4 cups broccoli florets
½ cup carrots, shredded
½ red onion, sliced thin
2 apples, diced
½ cup pecans, chopped
½ cup dried cranberries
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. honey
Salt and pepper, to taste.


1. In a large bowl, combine broccoli, carrots, onion, apples, pecans, and cranberries.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together yogurt, lemon juice and honey.
3. Combine yogurt mixture with vegetable mixture and toss well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Chill until ready to serve.

Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie – Makes 6 servings
Click here for an easy to print version
Photo and recipe courtesy of Healthy Fitness Meals

1.5 lbs. Sweet Potatoes peeled and chopped
½ Teaspoon Italian Seasoning Blend
Salt and pepper, to taste

The Filling:
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Medium Yellow Onion diced
3-4 Garlic Cloves minced
1 ½ pounds Lean Turkey Meat
2 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
½ Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 Cup Chicken or Beef Broth
1 Cup Frozen Peas or any other veggies like corn, carrots, defrosted


1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF
2. Place the sweet potatoes in a large saucepan with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are tender. About 10 minutes.
3. Drain and mash, then season with salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning blend.
4. Heat oil in a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions for 3-4 minutes, then stir in the garlic and cook for a minute or so.
5. Add the ground meat and cook, crumbling with a wooden spoon, until the meat is cooked through.
6. Stir in the tomato paste, oregano, paprika, salt and pepper, and broth. Simmer for a few minutes until the liquid is reduced, then stir in the peas.
7. Spread the meat mixture into a 2-quart baking dish. Add mashed potatoes on top and spread it evenly all the way to the sides.
8. Bake until the potatoes are just starting to brown, about 25-30 minutes. Rest, then serve and enjoy!