Sugar is the Rodney Dangerfield of nutrients – it gets no respect. Virtually all internet discussions on the realities of sugar will devolve at some point into alarmist statements of “SUGAR FEEDS CANCER!”.
Naturally, these types of extreme claims are RARELY spouted by people with as clear of an understanding of science as clear as their understanding of how to use caps lock and exclamation points. So I thought…. “how bout I get someone with some in depth scientific knowledge on this topic to weigh in”?
And then hopefully we can send back this fear peddling piece of misinformation back to whence it came and more people can start using food as a source of pleasure and nutrition rather than something to be afraid of.
So, without further ado, here’s a guest post from my friend Holly…
Sugar Feeds Cancer = UNTRUE: Biology and Basic Facts
by Holly Mathleen
The purpose of this article is to dispel an old myth that keeps getting re-circulated around the internet and the diet guru world to stir up food fear:
“Cancer feeds on sugar” or “Sugar makes cancer grow faster”
This untrue statement gets misused to support diet and health claims that sugar is toxic, addictive, unnecessary for human function, or otherwise evil. Writers and marketers and bloggers try to scare readers by insinuating that they can control disease by controlling what they eat, usually by avoiding certain foods or eliminating certain types of foods (although the various experts can never agree on the culprit: fats, carbohydrates, sugar, wheat, gluten have all been blamed for a myriad of diseases and weight gain). However appealing, the idea that you can avoid disease by avoiding certain foods is just plain wrong from a scientific standpoint.
There is no scientific or medical evidence that eating certain foods or avoiding certain foods can alter the progression of cancer at the cellular level.
In my work as a scientist with a PhD in Biomedical Engineering and Biophysics, my research has involved the study of various types of human cancer cells and working towards new treatments for cancer at the cellular level. My experiments have required me to grow and study many different human and animal cancer cell types in the laboratory for use in experiments and to grow tumors (masses of cancer cells) in animal models (mice and rats) to test new treatments.
After working extensively with cancer and normal cells, I am well versed in cell biology and cancer biology and become quite annoyed when alleged nutrition and health “experts” tell tall tales about basic biology in an attempt to gather page views, sell books or diet plans, and prey on people’s understandable fear of disease.
I’m going to present the main reasons why this myth is false in simple terms, without getting overly complicated or using too much scientific jargon. This is information from Biochemistry 101, which is readily available to anyone with general biology background and is not new or esoteric information.
First, we need to define some terms, namely, “cell”, “sugar”, and “cancer”.
- A “cell” is the basic building block of all living organisms. Collections of cells make up tissues, tissues are organized to form organs, organs are the main components of physiological systems, and all of these are contained in the whole organism, in this case, the human body. The behavior of normal cells everywhere in the body are controlled by a complex network of regulatory processes that direct the cell’s organized development and growth. Individual cells grow and multiply via the process of mitosis, or “cell splitting”. One cell divides into two new cells, each of those new cells further divide into two more cells, and the process continues via exponential multiplication, with the number of cells continually doubling in number. Old or damaged cells die off in a planned process, their biomaterials are recycled, and they are replaced with new cells in an orderly manner.
- “Sugar” is a generic, everyday name for simple carbohydrate molecules such as glucose, sucrose (table sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar), and others. All of these share a common chemical structure and are used by the body as basic fuels and building blocks. Your body needs a variety of carbohydrate, proteins, and fats for healthy function, and carbohydrates are responsible for providing the energy source for your living cells. The majority of the carbohydrates that you eat are broken down into glucose, which is the sugar that all of the cells in your body burn as their primary fuel.
That’s right. Every single cell in your body uses glucose as its primary fuel source. Without glucose, your cells would die. Therefore, your entire body runs on glucose, much as your car runs on gasoline or diesel fuel. You literally can’t live without it! All of the carbohydrates that you eat–whether from fruits, vegetables, table sugar, and syrups or other carbohydrate sources such as bread, rice, pasta, sweet potatoes, cakes and sweets—are broken down by the body into simple carbohydrates or glucose that can be burned by your cells. In fact, your brain is one of the greediest consumers of glucose; although it accounts for only 2% of your total body weight, brain functions use over 20% of your daily caloric intake in the form of glucose. All of that thinking and processing takes energy!
- “Cancer” is a very broad term for a large group of diseases. There are many forms of cancer, and they differ in complicated ways, but what they all have in common is that cancers are a form of uncontrolled cell growth. In contrast to the well-regulated and organized growth, death, and replacement of normal cells, one of the hallmarks of cancer cells is that their regulatory mechanisms become disabled, and as a result, these cells develop rapidly and abnormally, growing and dividing in an unorganized manner, often forming a mass of abnormal cells in the form of tumors.
Here’s where the internet myth got it backwards: Because cancer cells are growing and dividing so rapidly, they use a large amount of glucose (they need a lot of fuel). However, they don’t grow and divide rapidly as a result of consuming glucose. In plain terms, the growth causes the need for fuel; the fuel doesn’t cause the growth.
Therefore, you cannot control or avoid cancer by avoiding sugar. Even if you were able to eliminate all sources of carbohydrates from your diet, the body will convert other materials to glucose and fuel to ensure a constant cellular energy supply. Additionally, you cannot preferentially withhold glucose/energy from some cells in your body of sugar while continuing to supply it to the rest of your cells. You cannot control cancer with diet. Period. Anyone who tells you otherwise is misrepresenting biology and trying to scare you.
In summary, contrary to misleading reports, emails, websites, and plain lies that say eating sugar will feed cancer or cause cancer to grow faster, all cells need sugar to grow and function, but sugar will not make cancer cells grow faster. All of the cells in your body use sugar as their main form of energy, and sugar is found naturally in many of the foods that we eat as well as added artificially to sweeten foods and drinks. It’s a good idea to be aware of how much sugar contributes to your overall energy intake in the form of calories because eating too many calories can cause excessive weight gain and other associated health outcomes, but eliminating sugar does not have any benefits in preventing disease.