August 12, 2023

Is Eating Sugar Bad For My Cancer?


During PET scans, my cells gobble up an injected glucose tracer (much like I gobbled up three pieces of blueberry pie in one sitting for breakfast last week.)  So if my cancer cells are thriving on sugar, does that mean eating sugar will encourage cancer growth?

No.  Our body chemistry isn’t that simple.  I’m bombarded by over the top and overly simplistic web comments and articles about cancer and sugar, written by folks who range from fad diet elites to total wacky freaks.  And that’s not who I trust for medical information.

Diana Ulman, founder of The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, recently told me about Rachel Beller.  She isn’t just another gal swept up by healthy eating who hung a nutrition shingle on her door.  She is a Registered Dietitian with a master’s degree and clinical experience, who makes recommendations based on evidence based scientific research – the kinda info that makes it into peer-reviewed journals.

Surfing her website, I found her article on cancer and sugar.  Here’s a great quote: “Sugar doesn’t just feed cancer cells; rather, sugar feeds ALL the cells of the body, including cancer cells. The body needs sugar to function, and if sugar is cut out of the diet, the body will then produce sugar from other sources of dietary intake, including proteins and fats. So cutting out sugar won’t really help. Cutting down may not be a bad idea because when one eats a lot of sugar, it causes the body to produce more insulin. Insulin promotes cellular growth, including cancer cellular growth. While insulin is necessary for normal healthy cells, too much of it can have undesirable effects, including increased cancer cell growth.”

Rachel suggests moderation (not so trendy, but very wise):  Increasing protein, fiber, and good fat helps the body produce less insulin while giving you good nutrition.  Eating sugar with a protein, fiber, and good fat helps your body process sugar in a healthier way.  Natural sugar is better for you, and she advises ditching soda and limiting candy and sweet treats.  Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Here’s my sugar regimen: No to pop, high fructose corn syrup, and packaged baked goods.  Yes to jumbo bags of Reese’s Pieces a couple times a year at the movies, and baking Martha Stewart and my mom’s recipes for cakes, pies, cobblers, and tarts -  I cut the sugar in half or even less and it tastes better!

Have you ever been freaked out that sugar is going to cause your cancer to grow?  Have you ever ditched sugar?  Do you feel better when you don’t eat it?

To learn more about evidence-based complementary and alternative medicince read my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. anon me again Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 8:21 PM

    I was eating Walkers shortbread cookies when I opened this site today….

    Sugar avoidance is a major thing in the “anti-inflammation diet” that I once looked into after my diagnosis. Those books really do scare you. I must confess that the recipes from those books looked so unappetizing (“sweets” with no sugar???? It’s unthinkable, my mom taught European pastry making) that I tossed all the books. This total sugar avoidance business is, to me, just another extreme and overly simplistic diet beliefs that ignore many other factors that cause / cure Illnesses. It feels like almost emotional blackmailing….

    I don’t want to turn my food into medicine. For me, food is food. I want to keep enjoying my meal and snack time. This is not to say I follow an unhealthy diet. In fact, 60-70% of what I eat is actually plants - fresh fruits and vegges (as organic as possible without driving myself crazy). My body feels a difference if I fall a bit out of this routine. I do think it has contributed partially to my lupus being brought under control (at least for now).

    BUT I’m not going to the extreme - I still enjoy having my chocolate (and almond) croissaints and home baked brownies - and even shortbread cookies once or twice a week.

    I really doubt that my lupus will go away if I stop sugar because no illness is caused / cured by sugar….

    I think we generally accept that it’s important to have a balanced approach to things in life. I don’t see any reason why sugar should be an exception. I couldn’t agree with you more on “in moderation”!!! :-)

  2. brigita Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 8:55 PM

    OMG Thank. You. I have come across this misinformation and other like it (“sugar competes with cell receptors for Vitamin C,” for instance, which is wrong wrong wrong) more than once during my cancer years, which was made all the more nerve-wracking due to the fact that I was working on a nutrition masters when I was diagnosed.

    I know it doesn’t take a genius to reach this conclusion, but I think some people glom onto this notion because they are so desperately looking for *some* way to get control over their situation and food is certainly one thing over which we have near 100% control. Me, I choose to exert my food control by opening mouth, inserting crème brûlée. ;)

  3. Cathy Bueti Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 6:45 AM

    Kairol, you somehow always seem to write what is on my mind! I have obsessed over controlling my diet as a way to control the fear I live with of my cancer coming back. I became super obsessed with diet stuff, juicing to the point where in my head I thought that if I stopped I would just drop like a duck! I was unforgiving of myself for the times when I ate pizza, or had desserts occasionally or god forbid miss a day with the juicer. I know someone who is a cancer survivor and runs screaming from sugar. There are certain fruits she won’t eat and she has dropped all carbs from her diet because of their ability to become sugar when digested. She has since drop 15 lbs she didn’t have to loose all out of fear.
    I have eased up over the past 6 months and been kinder to myself with the diet stuff. I still eat sugary stuff but in moderation. I use agave nectar as a sweetener in lemon water and some smoothie drinks. I too try to avoid soda, and high fructose corn syrup as well as processed stuff. I have to admit that I have become fearful of sugar when I read stuff about how it feeds cancer. And then I realize I can’t live like that!
    It is good to know I am not the only one with this kind of stuff on my mind! As always Kairol, great blog post!

  4. Lauren Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 8:42 AM

    I’ve ditched a LOT (some by choice, some by chemo diet restrictions) I’m not allowed to drink coffee, tea, or dark soft drinks, so I just cut out all soft drinks and basically anything sugary but vanilla ice cream (I can’t have processed or ripe fruit, either… laaaaame) and the pecan pies my grandma has been baking and sending to me (no chocolate, either, which is painful!)

    I’ve found that even though I’m on chemo, a steady diet of fresh meat, veggies and dairy products makes me feel better more quickly than after my first treatment, when I didn’t know about my food restrictions and ate junk (whoops, sponge-bob kraft macaroni…)

    I’ve ordered your book on Amazon (I was at the bookstore last night, but I think I looked in the wrong section)… and i’m really excited to get it!

  5. Michael Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 9:33 AM

    Sugar and I have had a love-hate relationship for a long time. Earlier this year, I took on a 30-day sugar-free challenge, and posted regularly on my blog about how I did. I took it on because I daily had sugar cravings and felt a strong pull to fill them everyday. Too much sugar is hard on the body, like you pointed out, Kairol, it forces a lot of insulin to be produced. But I took on this challenge more to address my eating habits and self-control. Overall, my eating philosophy is roughly the 80/20 rule - 80% good stuff, 20% stuff I enjoy that is less good (but I ENJOY it!). I felt good about going sugar-free for 30days - I felt free from the guilt of eating sugar at every whim. It was really an interesting experience.
    Thanks Kairol!

  6. Anita Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 12:16 PM

    Hi Kairol,

    What a great post and great comments too from everybody. Being a type-2 diabetic, not on insulin yet, controlling it with diet and exercise, so far, made me more aware of carb and how they react to my body and sugar is not bad for a diabetic, again moderation is key. I used to love mashed potatoes and was a self admitted carbo junkie and that has changed since last July. I try to control what I can control and for me that is enough. I realize with cancer your body is out of control and I can really empathize with that.


  7. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 14th, 2009 at 8:06 PM

    Thanks for all of your comments. It is so interesting how many times the word “control” was used! Brigita, I am particularly interested in what it was like to be working on your master’s in nutrition. I hope you’ll tell us more about it. I’d like to write a future post about the different kinds of nutritionists and schools of nutrition thought.

  8. Shannon Says:
    August 15th, 2009 at 5:41 PM

    We cant control our bodies but we can control what goes into them…. and frankly ANY measure of control at this point is awfully nice to have!

  9. Garnet Says:
    August 18th, 2009 at 6:58 PM

    An older friend of mine (late 50′s) lost her husband to colon cancer a few years ago and she was convinced the cancer spread so rapidly because of all the sugar he liked to eat. She told me that during the last 6 months or so of his life, he kept craving chocolate in all sorts of forms, but mostly in a candy bar sense. She didn’t like this at all.

    After I told her about my diagnosis, she relayed the aforementioned information to me and told me to cut sugar (especially ALL refined sugar) COMPLETELY out of my diet. Well, I have never in my life been one to deny my taste buds anything, even while dieting. I’m a firm believer in moderation. So I continued to eat a candy bar or piece of cake here and there.

    She stopped talking to me for about three to four months during that time. In retrospect I think she was just terrified that my continuing to eat sugar in my foods would cause me to decline and die rapidly. That’s just a guess.

    We are talking again and we picked up our friendship right where we left off. But we’ve never spoken of the sugar topic since, nor do I feel we need to.

    It’s just one more piece of advice that people like to offer us patients as we endure cancer. Last week my dad even sent me an email about a woman who ate 4 tablespoons of canned asparagus morning and night which successfully caused her tumor to almost disappear completely. I think if sugar really was that much of a No-No or if canned asparagus really was the answer to curing cancer, I’m pretty sure we would’ve heard about it from our doctors, if not at least the media, don’t you???

    CAnned asparagus. Yuck.

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