Does Sugar Feed Cancer?
Does sugar feed cancer? Well, yes and no. Um, OK – yes.
All cells use sugar – aka glucose – for their primary fuel source, so sugar does indeed feed all cells. But if you’ve ever had a PET scan, you know that before you get your scan, you get to drink a lovely shake of radioactive glucose or get an injection of a similar concoction. Cancer cells are very greedy; they like to gobble up glucose much more quickly than non-cancerous cells, which is why the cancer cells light up on the screen during your scan.
All carbohydrate-containing foods contain sugar to some degree. So this means even healthy foods like whole grains, beans, fruits, and even vegetables contain some sugar. The glycemic index basically tells you how fast a particular food will raise your blood sugar level. For instance, we know refined/processed foods like white sugar, white bread, and white rice are high glycemic foods, but so are healthy foods like watermelon, dates, and potatoes. The glycemic load of a meal takes into account the whole meal. Sometimes eating higher glycemic foods along with lower glycemic foods can blunt the rise in blood glucose when eaten together.
Why is your blood sugar level a concern? Because your body produces insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) whenever your blood sugar level rises. We know insulin helps regulate blood sugar, but did you know insulin is also a growth hormone? So is IGF-1, which reacts in response to insulin production. So more sugar eaten = more insulin produced = more IGF-1 produced = more cancer cell growth. Yikes! In fact, IGF-1 has been found through a number of studies to play a big role in promoting breast, lung, prostate, and other types of solid tumor growth. IGF-1 has a growth-promoting effect on almost every cell in the body especially in muscle, bones, liver, kidney, nerves, skin, lungs and blood. IGF-1 also affects the DNA synthesis within these cells.
If you have an advanced cancer, you need to be even more aware of your blood sugar level since rapidly growing cancer cells consume more glucose to keep up with their growth spurt. And if you are on chemotherapy, high levels of insulin and IGF-1 can play a role in blocking chemo activity making cancer cells less responsive to chemotherapy. If you have a hormonal cancer such as breast, endometrial or uterine cancer, then IGF-1 is also a concern as estrogen receptors on cancer cells can be stimulated by IGF-1. IGF-1 has even been found to interfere with the effectiveness of the drug trastuzumab.
What can you do about it?
1. Plant in your mind that plants are best! A plant-based diet lowers your daily glycemic load so less insulin and IGF-1 are produced in response to your blood sugar level. A diet chock full of veggies, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, and fruits will not raise your blood sugar as much as a diet full of white stuff like white sugar, white rice, white bread, etc. Foods that grow out of the ground are naturally low in sugar and high in fiber. Fiber helps to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, resulting in the production of less insulin and IGF-1. Now here’s the kicker: switching to a plant-based diet will help you to cut back or eliminate animal foods, which will lower your IGF-1. Your body naturally produces IGF-1. We need this growth hormone for – you guessed it – growth. As babies, we need IGF-1 to help us grow, but then stop drinking mother’s milk. Somewhere along the line, humans began drinking animal milks that also contain natural IGF-1. Americans love milk and cheese and yogurt and ice cream … you get the picture. IGF-1 in animals is identical to IGF-1 in humans, so the more we consume dairy, the more we consume IGF-1. IGF-1 is also in animal meats and fats. Eliminating red meat, poultry and dairy will significantly help reduce your IGF-1.
2. Stop eating junk! Cut out refined and processed foods and stick to stuff Mother Nature made. No more candy, soda, white bread, white rice, ice cream, or even white potatoes. Switch to whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and steel-cut oats. Choose starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, Yukon Gold potatoes, squash and pumpkin.
3. Watch your sweetener intake. No more high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice or dextrose. While you’re at it, cut out artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin, aspartame and acesulfame potassium. If you must sweeten your foods or if you like to bake, try stevia leaf, brown rice syrup, agave syrup or maple syrup in small amounts – less than five teaspoons per day.
4. Get moving! Exercise helps to lower blood sugar levels by sensitizing cells to insulin and helps them take in more glucose for fuel rather than letting glucose float around in the blood where it can do damage. Exercise also helps lower IGF-1 by increasing a binding protein that acts like a magnet to IGF-1 and makes it less available to cancer cells for growth.
5. Know your numbers. Ask your doctor to check your fasting blood glucose, insulin and IGF-1 levels. Most doctors would consider a normal glucose level to be between 70-100 mg/dL, but new evidence has suggests that glucose between 70-80 mg/dL is optimal. Levels above 100 mg/dL might indicate prediabetes or even full-blown diabetes. Insulin can help your doctor check for insulin resistance. Insulin should be between 5-20 microunits/mL. Anything above this could indicate insulin resistance. Optimal IGF-1 levels are based on your age and sex. Laboratory results will show your ideal range. Your level should be in the bottom half of that range.
Jacki Glew, MS, RD, LDN, is the clinical nutrition manager at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment. She and four other dietitians work daily with the Block Center’s integrative staff to create individualized and scientifically based nutrition and supplement plans for people battling cancer.
Photo Credit: kaibara87