Cancer patients, do you have to give up sugar?

Written by Siddhi Shroff, a registered dietitian at the UK Markey Cancer Center.

It’s common for those dealing with a cancer diagnosis to seek advice, but sometimes this may lead to misinformation and misunderstanding about what is best for their health.

For example, one recent study has caused some cancer patients to believe that they should be cutting all carbohydrates and sugar from their diet, which is not the case.

What the study means

This study, published by Belgian biologists in October 2017, found a relationship between glucose (sugar) and the activation of a gene that stimulates the growth of cancer cells. This led to a public fear that everything with sugar should be avoided as it will cause or “feed” cancer.

Although these results have many implications for future research, it is important to remember that this one study was done in a laboratory environment, and it is not enough evidence to apply it to changes in the human diet or to the general population.

Unfortunately, the study has led to a public understanding that people should be cutting carbs and avoiding all sugar. Another misconception is that cancer patients should avoid all sugars throughout treatment, but that is not necessarily true either.

Sugar and added sugar

Our body needs energy. The carbohydrates in the food we eat break down to glucose – the sugar that serves as the main source of energy for the body. All cells require this energy in order for the body to function effectively.

Sugar found naturally in fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy foods is OK because these foods offer beneficial nutrients.

Added sugars, on the other hand, are sweeteners that are added to food during processing. These are the sugars you should try to avoid. Unlike the natural sugars mentioned above, added sugars do not contain essential vitamins and minerals and provide only empty calories.

Added sugars usually come from sweetened beverages (soft drinks, coffee, tea or energy drinks), candy, cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, doughnuts, jams, jellies, syrups and sweet toppings.

These foods have more calories. Excess caloric intake can lead to weight gain and obesity, which has been shown to be a risk for many cancers.

So, how much added sugar is OK?

According to the American Heart Association, women should aim to consume around 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day, and men should aim for no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

You can limit your intake of added sugars by:

  • Drinking water, unsweetened coffee or tea, instead of sodas and other sweetened beverages.
  • Choosing beverages like low-fat milk or 100-percent fruit juice, which will also help you to meet daily dairy and fruit recommendations.
  • Choosing fruit as a naturally sweet dessert or snack instead of foods with added sugars.
  • Making sweet desserts a “once-in-a-while” treat and eating smaller portions.
  • Buying packaged foods from the store that have little to no added sugars: plain yogurt, unsweetened applesauce, frozen fruit with no added sugar or syrups.

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