Saturday, 10 January 2015

Sugar: Good or Evil?

Recently a friend with breast cancer forwarded various links to websites claiming that 'sugar feeds cancer'.  What do you think? she asked me imploringly.  Do we have to cut sugar out of our diets to beat cancer?

Sigh.  On top of everything else we are going through, do we really have to give up the little sweet treats that get us through?

I checked out the links and could see why she was alarmed.  'Sugar and cancer are in a death grip' one proclaimed ominously.  Cancer feeds on sugar, therefore the answer must be to cut all sugar out of our diet and starve the cancer to death.

Like most things scientific, it seems that the truth is a lot more complicated.

The excellent link below to Cancer Research UK debunks a number of 'myths', including this one.

First of all, they explain that our body breaks our food down into building blocks.  Sugar, the white stuff on the table, is broken down into the building blocks glucose and fructose which are used to feeds all the cells in our body and give them energy to do their jobs.  Glucose is supposedly the evil villain which is feeding our cancer.

Eating sugar will obviously release glucose into your system.  But actually, glucose comes from other sources too.  Like milk.  And even vegetables.  Our cells, including the cancerous ones, don't mind a bit where their glucose-food came from originally.

Now it is true that most cancer cells grow fast and therefore gobble up more glucose than most other types of cells, often up 200 times as much (this is known as the Warburg effect after the scientist who discovered it).

But other cells need glucose too.  In fact some pretty significant cells also need large amounts of glucose to do their jobs.  Cells in our immune system and stem cells gobble up glucose too, and personally I'd like  my immune system to be in tip-top condition and for my body to be able to replace old cells with new ones.

Your body knows it's got an army of cells that need feeding and so it will do its best to keep its glucose levels stable whatever you eat.  Even if you starve, your body will find other ways to make glucose for as long as it can.

And more recent research has shown that it isn't even true that all cancer cells need a high glucose diet.

The more you dig into this, the more you realise that the picture is very complicated.  Simplifications like 'sugar feeds cancer' really don't help much.

But before we scoff down a bag of cookies, there is another message out there which is super simple as well as being consistent and supported by every scientific study.

A healthy diet - high in fruit and vegetables and low in sugary and processed foods - combined with exercise and not being overweight is the best way to combat a whole variety of horrible diseases.  Including cancer.

So this is my simple conclusion.  My best way back to physical health is to eat healthily, exercise steadily and keep my weight under control.  But my mental health is also important.  If the odd bit of chocolate or a sticky pudding, taken in moderation, can get me through the stress of life with a smile on my face...then that's just fine too.

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