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Food and cancer- is sugar risky?

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What do the experts say about sugar?

It is common to read online that eating sugar “feeds” cancer, however the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) says there is no strong evidence directly linking sugar to increased cancer risk.  They do talk about an indirect link via excess energy intake and weight gain. It is now well accepted that overweight and obesity increase cancer risk, and maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things to reduce cancer risk.

The Cancer Council Australia does not mention sugar specifically in its diet and exercise advice for cancer prevention but rather talks about the importance of maintaining a healthy weight, regular physical activity and eating more fruit and vegetables. They do, however, have a position statement on sugar-sweetened beverages in which they recommend adults and children reduce their consumption in order to reduce the risk of weight gain and obesity.

When sugar isn’t sugar
The idea that sugar ‘feeds’ cancer comes from the research that cancer cells demand high amounts of glucose. This makes sense when you consider that cancer by definition is rapidly dividing cells – they need energy for growth. However it is a mistake to conflate blood glucose uptake by cells to dietary sugar intake because a lot happens in between. Research is ongoing, but it appears sugar intake does not have a direct relationship to cancer cell growth.

What is glycomics?
Glycomics is the study of the thick coat of carbohydrate chains called glycans that appear on the surface of cells. This sugar coating provides a unique cell signature that can help determine cancer growth and development. It is hoped research into these sugar signatures will allow detection, treatment and vaccines for cancer. A new Australian Centre for Cancer Glycomics has been established at Griffith University at its Gold Coast, Queensland campus and is the only one of its kind in Australia.

The riskiest food component is perhaps the one we hear least about: alcohol. There is convincing evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver and breast, as well as colorectal cancer in men. Alcoholic drinks also probably increase the risk of colorectal cancer in women and stomach cancers. The leading theory as to how alcohol causes cancer is via direct damage to DNA.

What is the consensus on reducing the risk of cancer with diet and lifestyle?
The AICR’s expert report on Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the prevention of cancer was based on a global scientific literature search which yielded 7000 eligible studies which were then reviewed and presented to an expert panel of 21 world-renowned scientists. The scientists judged the evidence and came up with the following 10 recommendations.

  1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
  2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.
  3. Avoid sugary drinks. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods.
  4. Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes such as beans.
  5. Limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) and avoid processed meats.
  6. If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 for men and 1 for women a day.
  7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt (sodium).
  8. Don't use supplements to protect against cancer.
  9. * It is best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and foods.
  10. * After treatment, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.

*Special Population Recommendations

The inclusion of the advice to avoid sugary drinks is due to the risk of weight gain because they are easy to drink, less satiating and high in calories (kilojoules).

NEXT: Is refined sugar any worse than refined starch?  

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