What Is The Link Between Sugar and Cancer?

What people know about sugar is influenced by different agents and not always scientific.

Most of us agree that too much sugar in our lives cannot be a good thing. It leads to excess calorie consumption, overweight, obesity, diabetes, and other nasty conditions.

But what about inflammation and cancer? Is sugar a trigger for aggressive cancer? What happens with the sugar we consume every day? Is there a solid reason for concern?

In this article, we’re considering the facts and myths about sugar with scientific evidence at hand. More specifically, our focus will be on the relationship between sugar and cancer and the prostate cancer foods to avoid. You will realize that high-sugar diets are not helpful in this regard. However, the reason might not be exactly what you thought.

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Glucose – the fuel of life

You won’t likely find sweet words about glucose on the internet. Most people spread alarming news and call sugar “white death” and similar names. They say it is one of the favorite foods for cancer. But before we dive into the subject and determine whether or not that is true, let’s talk about sugar. After going through the basics, it will be easier to have an unbiased opinion. Then, we’ll be ready to understand more complicated biology.

There are three macronutrients in our food, and they are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. What we usually call sugar is a type of carbohydrate, and there are many types. In nature, we can find simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates (1).

Simple and complex carbohydrates

Simple carbs are what we call sugar. They are small and not attached to other molecules. Complex carbs are made up of many simple carbs bound to each other in branched chains. Whole foods and fresh foods usually have complex carbs. However, some natural foods such as honey contain simple carbs, also known as sugars.

Even sugar (simple carbs) has different types. They come in single units or monosaccharides, such as in glucose and fructose. Also, they may come in pairs or disaccharides, such as in lactose and sucrose. They are all carbohydrates and become a source of energy after being absorbed.

The most common type of sugar we have in the kitchen is table sugar. It looks like crystals and dissolves in water, leaving a sweet flavor. Every molecule of sugar has one glucose and one fructose bound together. Then, every crystal of sugar contains thousands of sucrose molecules. This is a type of refined sugar but works the same way as sugar found in honey, which also contains glucose and fructose.

So, the first myth we need to bust is that honey is healthy while table sugar is not. They both contain simple sugar, with a few extra minerals and phytonutrients found in honey (1).

Complex carbohydrates are assembled in long chains. Since they are very big, they do not dissolve and do not have the same sweet taste. That’s why potatoes don’t necessarily have a sweet taste, even if they have many carbs. These starchy vegetables contain complex carbs and include bread, rice, and pasta. Once in the intestines, these complex chains are broken down into smaller units and then simple carbs to facilitate absorption (1).

What happens with sugar inside the cell?

Every cell of the body needs sugar to obtain energy. When sugar is absorbed and taken to the blood, it soon reaches cells and gets taken in for many cells, which requires insulin signaling. In cells, there’s an organelle called mitochondria that works like our lungs. In mitochondria is where cell breathing takes place, and it uses sugar and oxygen. The process is very complicated, but we can narrow it down in one sentence: the cell breaks down sugar using oxygen.

After many chemical reactions, the cell turns sugar into a molecule of ATP. Then, ATP is the energy molecule used by cells to function correctly. They are like small disposable batteries being regularly recharged using sugar and oxygen. 

Not consuming carbohydrates in the diet is tricky because it is an essential cell nutrient in all living beings. Our metabolism uses sugar as its primary fuel, and it’s really effective at it. We do have a last resource when sugar is not available, and cells can use fatty acids and protein to get ATP. However, the mechanism is not nearly as fast or practical.

Eating sugar is not a crime, and it’s not an unhealthy thing to do by itself. But everything depends, and our nutrition indeed contains more sugar than necessary. More of a good thing is not always a good thing, and that is true for sugar. That’s why this nutrient has been associated with obesity, diabetes, and severe health problems like cancer (1,2).

What is the link between sugar and cancer?

If we understand how cancer cells work, we will know why people say that sugar causes cancer. These cells have lost their restraint and multiply at a very accelerated pace. This quick growth needs a lot of glucose because cells are hyperactive and always busy. They need to synthesize new cell organelles, new enzymes, more cell pumps. Every step of the way consumes more and more ATP.

What cancer does to supply for this excessive demand is triggering inflammation. Inflamed tissues have a more rapid blood flow and receive more nutrients. In healthy tissue, that would be helpful to heal. In cancer, this increase in blood flow promotes tumor growth. Tumor cells take away nutrients that should be circulating throughout the body. That includes sugar, which is essential to create more ATP and keep the cell machinery moving.

So, technically speaking, the tumor needs glucose to turn on accelerated cancer growth. You will find many people online in an active campaign against sugar. They say that cutting back sugar will leave cancer without fuel. But the reality is not so simple because healthy cells need sugar, too. There’s no way to tell your body which cells deserve sugar and which cells should not have the nutrient.

But what if you don’t eat more sugar and rely on the alternative pathway of converting protein and fat into ATP? Many people have tried variants of this sugar-free diet in an attempt to treat cancer or prevent it. The scientific studies show no convincing evidence that this works. It does not increase your chance of survival if you have cancer. It does not reduce the risk of cancer, either (3).

Moreover, cancer treatment often leads to weight loss and loss of appetite. Cancer patients on a sugar-free diet might be hampering their own progress. Their body is under a lot of metabolic stress. Their nutrition might not be top-notch. And a restrictive diet when they are losing weight is definitely not a good idea.

If that is so, why is there anecdotal evidence that people recover or live healthier with a sugar-free diet? Not eating sugar and reaching ketosis is a hard thing to do. This type of diet is not easy to maintain.

If a person is willing to make this dietary change despite the challenges, he’s probably not hesitant to implement other changes. They are probably exercising regularly, they quit smoking cigarettes, eat as healthy as possible, and stay away from unhealthy behavior.

All of these factors reduce the risk of cancer in different ways. Pointing at sugar-free diets for an increase in survival rate might be oversimplifying when the study methodology is not well designed. Solid evidence suggests low-fat, high-fiber diets in combination with exercise to protect against cancer. As long as we don’t overeat carbohydrates, they will not cause harm (4).

Still, there are studies with an excellent methodology that reach an exciting conclusion. There is apparently an indirect link between sugar and cancer.

First off, statistical studies show that people who drink more sugary beverages have a higher risk of cancer. The increase is not much but significant and unrelated to a difference in weight. But if we don’t want to have this slight increase, we have to avoid sugary drinks (5).

Secondly, a high-sugar diet leads to overweight and obesity when sustained for long. Obesity increases your risk of developing 13 types of cancer, including breast cancer. It triggers systemic inflammation and favors cancers in many ways. But this risk increase can normalize by maintaining a healthy weight and exercising (6).

Other lines of investigation are also considering additional applications to our current understanding of sugar in cancer cells. But researchers are not currently focusing on a sugar-free diet as a cure for cancer. 

A sticky end for sugar research?

There has been considerable research about sugar and cancer. There is no evidence that a sugar-free diet cures cancer or helps prevent this condition. However, ongoing research on cancer metabolism has revealed something interesting about sugar.

Cancerous cells have an abnormal pathway to obtain their energy. It turns out that sugar metabolism in the mitochondria takes too long for them. They need faster energy sources and turn on additional steps and processes. This is known since the decade of the 1950s. This is when Otto Warburg found an alternative chemical pathway to create energy from glucose.

Now, this is the Warburg effect. It activates in fast-growing cells, particularly in cancer. It allows cells to bypass a series of steps and obtain more energy in less time. Since the Warburg effect is almost solely in cancer, it may help us find a weakness.

Everything that works differently in cancer cells can be used against them to kill them selectively. That includes this alternative energy pathway. What the cell uses as a shortcut for its benefit can turn against it as a weakness. New treatments are currently developing to cut this energy supply and starve cancer (7).

Additionally, by using these alternative pathways, cancer cells are more restricted in a way. They will be unable to adapt when certain nutrients are lacking. Some amino acids are fundamental to keep this machinery working. Other substances can similarly become a vulnerability that we can attack with drugs (7,8).

So, we can use what we know about sugar to fight against cancer. But it is not necessarily by adopting a sugar-free diet. Other recommendations have higher scientific relevance:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. You can choose between different methods. In choosing one of them, always stay safe and do not cause metabolic stress to your body.

  • Avoid sugary drinks, sugary foods, and added sugars. You don’t really need to go to the extreme. Reducing your sugar intake significantly will also reduce your risk of cancer. Make it a habit and stick to it.

  • Stay tuned for these new experimental agents that turn cancer advantage into a vulnerability.

Remember that starving cancer can be possible in the future. For now, it is an experimental treatment. Before this type of drug becomes available, we need to make sure that they are safe. So, there’s still a long way ahead of us to make this possible.

In the meantime, we can adopt lifestyle measures to reduce the risk. 

How can I cut down on sugar?

In the section “Glucose – the fuel of life,” we break down carbohydrates into different types. As noted above, sugar can be in free units such as glucose or in pairs such as lactose. We can also find it in branched chains called complex carbohydrates.

The only type of sugar we need to cut down is free sugar. This type links with weight gain. It is also the one that links to a slight increase in cancer risk. We typically eat this type of sugar in processed foods, sugary drinks, baked goods, and table sugar. 

Other foods have sugar, too. For example, we have plenty of sugar in potatoes and other starchy foods. Milk has sugar, as well as bananas and apples. But it is not necessary to cut these foods from our diet. Actually, we should eat more fruits and vegetables as general advice for prostate nutrition. They contain disaccharides and polysaccharides that won’t cause spikes in blood sugar levels.

If you want to cut sugar from your diet, follow these step-by-step recommendations:

Step 1: Cut down on sugary drinks

It is the easiest thing to do. Still, it might be difficult for some people who crave sugary drinks every day.

Cutting down on sugary drinks is the first step because it is the easiest way to consume excess sugar. You don’t feel particularly full by just drinking. Thus, it is easy to go beyond your calorie limit without noticing.

Cutting on sugary drinks includes fizzy drinks, sugary fruit juices, and sweetened beverages. Energy drinks also have a very high load of free sugar, mode than you need in one day.

Step 2: Stop eating sugary foods

You can try steps 1 and 2 at the same time. But if you’re struggling with step 1 alone, try to make it a habit before cutting on sugary foods.

These foods include cakes, sweets, biscuits, and other sugary treats. They are palatable, and you won’t realize when you’re overeating. The brain goes on and on eating, and it is difficult to stop.

You can rely on artificial sweeteners and light alternatives to make a smooth transition. But some people have a real addiction to sugary foods and need more radical decisions.

Step 3: Avoid processed foods

Not eating processed food and convenience foods can be difficult for some. We live a hectic and stressful life, and it is sometimes easier to go for canned or precooked alternatives. You might also be used to buy white bread and other highly processed options that you can change.

Fresh foods are ideal here, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Stick with safe and natural foods instead of things like breakfast cereal or canned pasta sauce. They have not only sugar but also high levels of sodium and other substances.

Step 4: Start reading nutritional labels

You can be safe, even consuming canned food and processed foods. All you need is to start reading nutritional labels. Cutting down sugar is easier than you think, and you only need to search for the “added sugars” section. Also, examine foods and do not consume anything that contains high-fructose corn syrup.

You will soon realize that some apparently healthy foods have a very high level of added sugars. One striking example is yogurt, which is often labeled as a safe food. It does have probiotics, and it is a safe alternative for lactose intolerance. However, commercial yogurt brands often have a sweet flavor and lots of added sugar.

If you read the label, you will soon realize which products are a better option for you. If you’re comparing two products, look at the portion size as well. That’s the best way to make an accurate comparison.


The ketogenic diet is becoming very popular lately. It has excellent applications, but some would state that cutting their dietary sugar also reduces cancer risk, including colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, etc.

There is evidence that lower sugar consumption reduces the risk of cancer. We also know that obesity, inadequate insulin levels, and the metabolic syndrome can lead to a high risk. But we don’t need to cut sugar dramatically to protect ourselves from cancer.

Instead, you can prevent spikes in your blood glucose by avoiding soft drinks and sugary foods, eating more fresh foods, and reading nutritional labels to avoid added sugars. Along with a consistent exercise routine, these changes could reduce your cancer risk and improve your quality of life.

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  1. Rolfes, S. R., Pinna, K., & Whitney, E. (2020). Understanding normal and clinical nutrition. Cengage learning.
  2. Johnson, R. J., Nakagawa, T., Sanchez-Lozada, L. G., Shafiu, M., Sundaram, S., Le, M., … & Lanaspa, M. A. (2013). Sugar, uric acid, and the etiology of diabetes and obesity. Diabetes, 62(10), 3307-3315.
  3. Jiang, J. X., Riquelme, M. A., & Zhou, J. Z. (2015). ATP, a double-edged sword in cancer. Oncoscience, 2(8), 673.
  4. Chazelas, E., Srour, B., Desmetz, E., Kesse-Guyot, E., Julia, C., Deschamps, V., … & Touvier, M. (2019). Sugary drink consumption and risk of cancer: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. bmj, 366, l2408.
  5. Deng, T., Lyon, C. J., Bergin, S., Caligiuri, M. A., & Hsueh, W. A. (2016). Obesity, inflammation, and cancer. Annual Review of Pathology: Mechanisms of Disease, 11, 421-449.
  6. Liberti, M. V., & Locasale, J. W. (2016). The Warburg effect: how does it benefit cancer cells?. Trends in biochemical sciences, 41(3), 211-218.
  7. Chen, Z., Lu, W., Garcia-Prieto, C., & Huang, P. (2007). The Warburg effect and its cancer therapeutic implications. Journal of bioenergetics and biomembranes, 39(3), 267.

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