The Sweet and Low Down on Sugar and Cancer

There is a lot of information out there when it comes to nutrition for the prevention and treatment of cancer. One of the most popular beliefs is that sugar is a bad guy: “Sugar feeds cancer, so I’m going to avoid all sugars. Sugars are bad”. The fact is that sugar is the main source of energy for ALL of the cells in our bodies, the good cells AND the bad cells. Therefore, choosing to eliminate all sugars from the diet would result in starvation of both the cancerous cells AND the good healthy cells, leading to overall weight loss and fatigue. Because severe weight loss, fatigue, and malnutrition are potential results of cancer and its treatments, completely eliminating sugars from your diet would NOT be a good idea. Instead of eliminating all sugars from your diet, choose to know your sugars and be smart about your diet.

The Low Down: Where are sugars found?

In our bodies, sugars are known as glucose. The cells in our body, and even our brain, use glucose for energy. In foods, sugars are found in their simplest form in sweets like cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream, candy, etc. Sugars are also found in their natural form in all fruits and starchy vegetables like corn, peas, and potatoes. Complex carbohydrates like whole grain breads, pastas, cereals, and brown rice are broken down into simple sugars in our body. In addition, sugar is found in milk and milk products like yogurt and ice cream. Can you imagine eliminating ALL of these sugars from your diet? You would miss out on the benefits of vitamins & minerals, anti-oxidants, and fiber found in these carbohydrates.

The Sweet: Use Sugars for Your Benefit  

- If you have cancer and are able to maintain your usual intake and weight, aim to include fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and milk & milk products as your main sources of sugar. Just like you would with a healthy diet, include sweets sparingly.

- If you have cancer and have experienced severe weight loss and related side effects like loss of appetite or early satiety, your goal is to get the most “bang for your (calorie) buck” so that you can help promote weight gain. It is likely that you are only able to eat small amounts at each eating occasion. In this situation, you would benefit more from taking a few bites of a honey bun than you would from taking a few bites of a slice of dry toast. Remember, you want to maximize your calories, so during this time, it is okay to say yes to the chocolate chip cookie. Your medical treatment is taking care of zapping those cancer cells, so it is your responsibility to maintain the good ones.

- If certain medicines like steroids are part of your treatment, it is possible that you will develop high  blood glucose values. This is one situation where you may be advised to watch your sugar intake; you may have to temporarily adopt the diabetic diet. See your dietitian for diabetic diet education.

Now that you’ve got the sweet and low down on sugar and cancer, you will be able to make smart choices to help promote your best self and fight cancer! If you experience other side effects from cancer and/or treatment that prevent you from adequate nutrition, make sure you see your dietitian.

By Andrea Parada, MS, RD, LD

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