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The Sweet Truth

A common question among cancer patients is “does sugar feed cancer?” There are many well meaning people who believe this whole heartedly and often scare cancer patients into believing that if they eat sugar they are feeding their cancer and giving it the tools to grow more quickly. While well meaning, they are wrong. The truth is, sugar does not “feed” cancer cells any differently than sugar “feeds” all normal cells in our bodies [i]. 

The human body need glucose, or simple sugar, for energy. Even if one omits all sugar from their diet, the body will continue to make sugar from other sources, such as proteins and fats. Cancer cells need sugar to grow the exact same way healthy cells do.


Added Sugar is Empty of Nutrients

However, from an overall health perspective, it is a smart choice to minimize the amount of sugar that you eat whether you have cancer or not. Calories loaded with sugar are empty calories and do not provide the balance of nutrients that are needed to strengthen the body’s immune system to fight cancer and other diseases. In addition, excess sugar consumption can contribute to higher calorie intake and weight gain. Higher intake of sugary foods can also cause the body to produce higher amounts of insulin. Insulin can promote the growth of both healthy and unhealthy cells. It is not necessary, however, to avoid all sources of sugar in your diet. By eating a well-balanced diet comprised of lean protein, healthy fats, and dietary fiber such as the Mediterranean diet, the body does not overproduce insulin in order to process simple sugar and carbohydrates in the diet.


Moderation is Key

As always, the key is moderation. If you are going to include sugar in your diet (and it is hard not to include some sugar), choose foods that contain natural sugar, such as the sugar that is found in whole fruits. Avoid foods that contain concentrated sources of sugar, such as juices, soda and fruit drinks. Limit sweets and desserts such as cakes, cookies, candies, ice cream, and sugary cereals and when you do occasionally enjoy them, have a smaller portion. Most importantly, focus on healthy, unprocessed plant foods full of cancer-fighting foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds [ii].


[i] Sugar and Cancer: Is There a Connection? Caring 4 Cancer – Your Nutrition Questions Answered. http://www.caring4cancer.com
[ii] Kushi, L. H., Doyle, C., McCullough, M., Rock, C. L., Demark-Wahnefried, W., Bandera, E. V., Gapstur, S., Patel, A. V., Andrews, K., Gansler, T. and The American Cancer Society 2010 Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee (2012), American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 62: 30–67.
Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Jessica is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). She studied nutrition at Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. She obtained her Master's degree through the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Jessica has worked in inpatient and outpatient oncology settings since 2001 in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Jessica is in charge of all operations including clinical and culinary operations ranging from menu development to evidence-based website content, relationships with registered dietitians and social workers and developing processes and protocols for intake, management and outcomes analysis of patients.

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