Does sugar feed cancer?

So, when battling a deadly disease, you would hope there is some clear-cut, scientific, easily understood information regarding tangentially taking care of your heath, outside said disease.  Sadly, you wouldn't just be wrong, you’d be WAY wrong. 

You are about to hear just a fraction of why making choices for health outside the boundaries of clinical trials and FDA-approved treatments can make your head feel dizzy.  And, why some of these controversial opinions and oft-cited facts have many believing that the “cure” for cancer and other diseases lies not within the labs and halls of medicine, but on the farm and in the grocery aisle.

I touched on the “cancer diet” in a previous post, but for posterity and those too busy to go read about vegetables, it breaks down like this – with the help of a nutritionist friend, I am on a pretty strict diet that features raw (and some cooked) veggies, limited fruit, some fish, lots of beans, a little egg, some nuts, and oh yea, more veggies.  Gone from the pantry – animal meat, all dairy (giving up yogurt was tough), almost all processed foods, and sugar.  Not just refined sugar, but really anything that spikes your blood sugar – hence the limited fruits.  Her words to me were: “sugar feeds cancer.”

This isn’t just a rogue opinion or something she dug up; Google it and you’ll find a ton of information offered that supports the theory.  It happens that those supporting this theory seem to have two things in common – they believe in it wholeheartedly (oftentimes because they themselves are cancer survivors), and they have a deep belief in holistic healing/mistrust of pharmaceutical companies and remedies.  Cancer cells have more insulin receptors than normal cells and can “feed” on elevated blood sugar levels.

Talk to a medical professional, though, or even a Biology or Chemistry major, and you invariably will get the same response: that’s just not how the body works.  Starving cancer by eliminating or restricting sugar intake doesn’t just target cancer cells, it starves ALL cells of the energy they need to function.  So the cancer would only die off as a result of the lack of fuel for all cells; that would akin to putting out a boat fire by blasting a hole in the hull to let water in. So chemically speaking, you can’t cure cancer by eliminating all carbohydrate intakes.

I cannot argue either side well; the chemical part my cousin dumbed down for me still left me blinking my eyes in vague comprehension — while the simplistic nature of the holistic side left me asking more questions than I got answers to.  Most of the medical professionals I have spoken with seem to have a lack of knowledge on (or just an indifference to) the detailed effect of diet on disease treatment.  At the least, they are focused on their areas of expertise and view nutrition as it applies to just that area.  The alternative medical practitioners I have met, emailed, or read have an almost fanatical view of the secondary harms that food and drink can do to your body after it is done with its primary goal of providing nutrition (or, in too many cases, providing taste with a complete lack of nutrition… I’m talking to you, holding that Diet Coke with the vague notion that you are being “healthy” by drinking a bunch of additives and chemicals added to carbonated water).  So with two factions further apart than the House Democrats and Republicans, how the HELL do you make any sense of it, especially when trying to focus on something like, oh, I don’t know, getting the right treatment to NOT die of cancer?

After several nights of emails and internet research, and one slightly contentious “philosophical debate” with the nutritionist, I still don’t know what is right.  I do believe that eliminating all processed sugar can’t hurt; I also think regulating blood sugar levels with limited, natural sugars so spikes (and the ensuing crash) don’t happen is a pretty good idea, too.  But can the answer to stopping cancer growth be as easy as “don’t consume sugars?”  Unlikely. By now, there would have been a high school science teacher somewhere who flipped the FDA the bird and put a sign outside his office with “I can cure your cancer – just hand over your Snickers bar.”

Still, the diet changes outlined above certainly may have both primary and secondary effects on someone’s fight against cancer.  If that person has a diet loaded with empty carb calories (I didn’t) or a significant amount of processed carbohydrates like pasta, bread, or rice (I, uh, plead the Fifth), replacing those insulin-affecting ingredients with vegetables and other low glycemic-index foods may certainly be a big piece of the puzzle. 

The primary effect is a healthy lowering of your baseline blood sugar; the secondary effects are the nutrition you get from those foods and the lack of nutrition (and in some cases, the chemicals and other unnatural junk) you are giving up should make your entire body stronger.  For anyone fighting cancer, all other systems need to be as close to peak condition as they can.

Maybe you can’t starve cancer by starving yourself of the glucose all your cells need to thrive; maybe you can hold it back by replacing those sugary or starchy foods with things more natural and limited in their sugars.  The best advice I’ve gotten so far on this debate is this: limit  natural sugars like an apple or orange  to eat it with the fiber it comes with (i.e. no OJ; just eat an orange) or add a protein or fat to go with it, like a handful of walnuts.

The rest of the advice?  Well, I am foregoing all processed sugars and limiting natural sugars, although I did get some concessions to re-introduce some fruit into the mix.  If it doesn’t work, then I just gave up, for no reason, a few healthy things I liked and a whole bunch of other stuff that only provided me with a fix for the sweet tooth.  But if it DOES work – or even just help my body in making other stuff work – then I really won’t miss lots of pasta and Swedish Fish.  OK, maybe I might miss the Swedish Fish.  The rest of it, though, is a sacrifice I would make to stick around quite a while longer.

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