Sugar & Cancer, The Not-So-Sweet Truth
There’s a painful fact I need to share with you today. The nation’s War on Cancer, initiated by President Nixon in 1971, has failed us. During the war’s more than 40 years, most statistics on cancer occurrences and deaths have not budged. In some instances, they’ve actually gotten worse. Yet doctors and hospitals that treat cancer continue to publicize manipulated statistics, while offering little in the way of actual solutions.
However, treating cancer is not what I’m here to discuss today. I’d like to tell you about a simple step you can take that may prevent you from getting the disease in the first place…
The average American consumes about 180 pounds of sugar each year. That’s roughly one-half pound of sugar every single day, a tremendous increase from just over a century ago, when consumption was a measly one pound annually.
As you may know, sugar contains absolutely no nutrition. It is one of the key reasons nearly 70% of the country is overweight or obese. Sugar is also one of the driving forces behind nearly 30 million cases of diabetes and another 80 million cases of pre-diabetes.
But diabetes and obesity are far from the only health concerns linked to sugar. Scientists have known for years that sugar also feeds cancer, a disease that will afflict one in two Americans during their lifetime and currently claims more than half a million lives each year. The cancer-sugar connection is not a questionable Internet rumor; Otto Warburg won the prestigious Nobel Prize way back in 1931 for discovering the link.
Sugar, Sugar Everywhere
As I noted in an earlier newsletter, cancer-promoting environmental toxins are inescapable these days. Although we can take steps, such as those I’ve outlined in that issue, to reduce our exposure. But many people don’t know that sugar is just as ubiquitous as those other toxins and chemicals. And while we tend to think of it as a fairly harmless ingredient in some of our favorite foods, a growing number of scientists regard added sugar (i.e., sugar that is not naturally occurring, as it is in fruit) as a toxin – one that it is just as addictive as drugs and alcohol, with equally damaging health results.
Too often, sugar’s addictive nature has made it difficult for many of my patients to escape their sugar dependency.
“I used to eat a meal only because I wanted to get to dessert,” confessed a patient I’ll call Amanda. “A few months ago, when I read that sugar can be addictive, the light bulb went off in my head and I said, ‘That’s me! I’m a sugar junkie, living from one fix to another.’ It was a terrible thing to realize, but it was true. If there was a 12-step program for sugarholics, I would join.”
Fortunately, Amanda was able to get control of her sugar habit by following the suggestions below. But as you’ll see, it takes a little effort.
Manufacturers eager to enhance flavor often add sugar to food. Added sugar is hidden in nearly everything these days, including pasta and pasta sauces, salad dressings, bread, and beverages of all kinds. Here’s one clue that a food contains hidden sugar – any food touting “reduced fat” probably contains extra sugar to make it more appealing. Without a careful reading of the small print on nutrition labels, you may not realize that your low-fat crackers are actually more like cookies, thanks to the addition of sugar.
How Sugar Hides in Plain Sight
Of course, food labels may not actually say “sugar” because manufacturers know many consumers are trying to avoid the sweet stuff. Instead, the ingredient list may contain names like sucrose, fructose, lactose, dextrose, sucrose, galactose, maltose, or concentrated juices like grape or apple and/or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – one of the worst health offenders out there (simply because it is an ingredient in so many foods, especially where you would least expect to find it).
Some Common Foods with Hidden Sugar
- Pasta sauces
- Salad dressing
- Canned soup
- Reduced- or non-fat cookies
- Fast food
- Granola, protein, or energy bars
- Beef jerky
- Peanut butter
One form of sugar, fructose, appears to be especially dangerous. For example, fructose has been shown to promote more aggressive cancers. In addition, it has been linked to pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal forms of the disease. Fructose has also been linked to an increased risk of recurrence and death in patients suffering with stage III colon cancer.
Please don’t make the mistake of assuming that you only need to avoid fructose, though, or that other forms of sugar are fine. Research shows that individuals with high levels of blood glucose – no matter where the sugar comes from – are four times as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and nearly twice as likely to die from any kind of cancer as people with healthier amounts of glucose. And here’s an important point: These statistics apply whether the high levels of glucose come from a sugar-rich diet or from eating simple, refined carbohydrates (see below) which the body processes like sugar once they are eaten.
The Sugar-Carb Connection
Sweets are not the only problem foods when it comes to encouraging cancer growth. Simple, processed carbohydrates, such as those found in anything made with refined, white flour, are processed in the body the same as sugar. And they have the same effect as sugar, elevating insulin and blood sugar (glucose) levels, stimulating weight gain, and increasing the risk of a long list of health problems, including cancer.
The problem with simple carbs is that, because they are made up of either one or two small sugar molecules, they are broken down quickly in the body. As a result, sugar floods into the bloodstream. When this happens, the pancreas is forced to release enough insulin to deliver all that sugar to the cells. So simple carbs provide quick energy, but after the initial surge (or “sugar rush”), be prepared for a big crash, including hunger pangs and more sugary cravings.
By contrast, complex carbohydrates, which are made up of three or more sugar molecules, are broken down slowly. Complex carbs, like those found in vegetables and whole grains, provide sustained energy, rather than a quick fix. And since fiber goes hand in hand with complex carbs, you are more likely to feel satisfied for a longer time after eating them.
Foods Containing Mostly Simple Carbohydrates
Let’s clarify one thing: Fruit contains simple carbs, but it also is rich in fiber, which slows digestion and prevents the rush/crash scenario you get with a candy bar. Fruit also contains various important nutrients and is low in calories. So not all simple carbs are bad. Here’s a list of some of the most popular simple carbs that are best avoided:
- White bread
- Potato chips and french fries
- White rice
- Cake, doughnuts, muffins, bagels, pastries (the exception being those made with whole grain flour)
- Non-whole wheat pastas
- Cereal (except whole grain)
Four Ways to Lower Your Sugar Intake
At first, these steps may sound drastic. I’ve worked with thousands of patients who were extremely resistant to avoiding sugar. Yet, after a week or so without it, nearly all of them discovered that once it was out of their system, they were fine. Actually, they were more than fine, because reducing sugar intake means better weight management, fewer mood swings, less cravings, and better immunity – just to name just a few benefits.
“I didn’t think I’d make it through the first week without having three or four sodas every day,” my patient Peter told me, after being off sugar for a few months. “But after the first few days, I noticed that I wasn’t as irritable as before and there was no awful ‘crash’ in the afternoon. A few weeks later, I was wearing pants that I’d outgrown a couple years ago. Pretty good trade-off, if you ask me.”
Remember, cutting back on sugar does not mean you’ll never eat another cookie or enjoy an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. The average person in good health can – and should – simply cut back on foods that contain hidden sugars and their cousins, simple carbs.
Here are a few ways to do just that:
Get rid of any and all beverages containing added sugar
If they’re not in your house, you won’t drink them. You may have to take a close look at those beverage labels to determine exactly what’s in them, but it’s worth the effort.
Get in the habit of drinking fresh, filtered water or iced tea, instead of sodas or other sweetened drinks. If you get tired of drinking plain water, here’s a trick I’ve recommended to many patients, and it works with both plain or sparkling water. Add a very small amount (1/4 to 1/3 cup) of plain (unsweetened) fruit juice or your favorite herbal tea to the water. You may also want to include a ½ teaspoon of stevia or a bit of raw, organic honey or maple syrup, which are all sweeteners that do not cause blood sugar problems.
What is Stevia?
A non-nutritive sweetener derived from a relative of the sunflower, stevia is considered to be several hundred times sweeter than sugar, yet it has no calories and none of the drawbacks to your health. Stevia is sold under various trade names in supermarkets, as a powder and liquid. Brands vary somewhat in aftertaste and sweetness, so I’ve found that it’s helpful to purchase small sizes of various brands until you find one that you like.
Clear your cabinets of foods containing hidden sugars
Again, you’ll have to read those labels to determine which foods are the worst offenders. And remember, the closer sugar (under that name or one of its aliases) is to the top of the ingredient list, the more of it a product contains. You may even want to keep a list of which foods are worst to avoid buying those again in the future.Fortunately, many of the simple carb foods we love are available these days in whole-grain versions. A patient I’ll call Greg experimented with various high-fiber, whole grain pastas and learned that he could make his own healthy meals that tasted just as good as the refined flour, fructose-enhanced versions.
“I make a double batch and freeze half of it, so there’s no reason to buy the prepared, frozen macaroni and cheese in the supermarket,” he explained. “I’ve done the same thing with spaghetti and marinara sauce, except I make my own sauce now, too. It doesn’t take that long, it tastes great, and I know it’s better for me. I’ve had cancer, and believe me, if doing my own cooking helps prevent that from happening again, it’s a small price to pay for staying healthy.”
Today, Greg remains cancer free and is actually becoming something of a gourmet cook!
Make fruit your go-to sweet treat
From time to time, we all have cravings for something a bit sweet. When patients who have given up sugar ask what they can do to avoid falling off the wagon, I always recommend whole fruit, either fresh or dried. Yes, the carbs in fruit are simple, but fruit also contains fiber, and that makes a big difference. Fiber slows digestion, so fruit does not send blood sugar or insulin into the stratosphere, unlike fruit juice.Remember, though, that moderation and variety are important. I recommend having a few different types of fruit on hand. Eating a different fruit each day provides a variety of nutrients.
If you choose dried fruit, look for those that are free of sulphur. A toxic gas, sulphur dioxide is commonly used as a preservative to prevent dried fruit from turning brown. Unfortunately, sulphur may cause breathing problems, especially in anyone with asthma or other health issues involving the lungs. Also, sulphured dried fruit often contains added sugar – exactly what we are trying to avoid!
Get a grip on your glucose
Maintaining healthy levels of blood glucose (sugar) is a keystone of good health, as I’ve written before. In moderation, glucose is not a bad thing. In fact, it is essential to good health. Every cell in the body uses glucose to produce energy, and it’s particularly important for the brain, the biggest glucose consumer of all.But, as is true for so many things, excessive glucose can be harmful. An overabundance of glucose can lead to weight gain, as well as insulin resistance.
To maintain healthy glucose levels, I strongly urge you to look into glucose-management supplements. Natural substances like alpha-lipoic acid, berberine, and Gymnema sylvestre have been shown to be useful for maintaining healthy glucose levels and reducing the likelihood of insulin resistance. These are the same ingredients I’ve chosen for my own blood-sugar management supplement.
Like so many things today, sugar is something we should use in moderation, if at all. It may take some time to become accustomed to eating fewer sweets, but please be patient! This is one lifestyle change that definitely pays off in the long run.
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: April 10, 2013