With Halloween approaching, most people are stocking up on chocolate bars, fruity chews, and other candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters. Though a delicious holiday tradition, many cancer patients are wondering: do these sweet treats do more harm than good? 

What is Sugar and Why Do We Need It?

Sugar is a kind of simple carbohydrate, which means it is digested quickly by the body.  Sugar is in obviously sweet things like soda pop, candy, and baked goods, but is also in healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  Every cell in the body, including cancer cells, uses carbohydrates as a main energy source.  Your body doesn’t store many carbohydrates, which is why you need to consume them every day.

Why Do Some People Say Sugar Causes Cancer?

As of this writing, there is no evidence to say that sugar directly causes cancer.  However, there is an indirect link between sugar and cancer.  A diet that is high in sugary foods leads to weight gain and obesity, which leads to high inflammation in the body.  Obesity and inflammation have both been strongly linked to 13 kinds of cancer and in the US, excessive weight is the second largest modifiable risk factor to developing cancer behind smoking. Obesity and excess fat in the body also leads to abnormal levels of specific hormone and signaling molecules, which may have cancer-causing effects.

Because cancer cells use carbohydrates for energy to grow, some people think if they cut out all sugar from their diet then the cancer will shrink and die.  If curing cancer was this easy, there would be no need for chemotherapy drugs! This doesn’t work because your whole body, not just cancer cells, needs carbohydrates in order to make energy. If you don’t eat enough sugar and carbohydrates, your body will break down fat and muscle to make sugar. This tissue breakdown leads to weakness, fatigue, and even malnutrition.  Foods like carrots, strawberries, oatmeal, and milk all contain natural sugars but also contain healthy things like fiber and antioxidants which can be cancer-fighting. It isn’t healthy to get rid of all these foods from your diet, especially when many cancer patients have a hard time eating enough food as it is.

How Much Should You Eat?

Many recommendations for sugar and carbohydrates intake are written in ‘servings per day’ or ‘grams per day’. This level of detail can be confusing to follow in your day-to-day life, but on the nutrition facts label the most important thing to avoid is too much ‘added sugar.’ This is the kind that manufacturers put in foods to make it addictively sweet, and can be a range of things, from the much demonized ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ to ‘brown rice syrup’ but it all means the same thing – sugar.  Overall, you should be limiting the amount of artificially sweet foods and choosing more naturally sweet foods. The American Cancer Society, along with many other trusted sources, suggests following an eating pattern similar to the one below, both to prevent and treat cancer:

  • Include:
    • Whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal, which contain slow-to-digest carbohydrates that keep you fuller longer
    • Fruits and vegetables that are brightly colored, to provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to keep your immune system working properly
    • Lean proteins such as fish, chicken, eggs, nuts & seeds, beans, and soy to keep your muscles strong
    • Healthful fats like olive, canola, or avocado oil to provide additional energy and keep you satisfied
    • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and flush out toxins 
  • Avoid or limit:
    • High sugar foods such as soda pop, candies, and cookies since they provide a lot of energy but very little nutrition 
    • Fatty or fried foods like french fries, steak, cream, and butter as these can lead to high inflammation and are not good for your heart

Sugar is delicious but not very nutritious, especially for cancer patients who need to get the most impact out of every bite.  Do you have specific questions about what changes you should make to your diet to enhance your cancer care? Join OncoPower and reach out to our Registered Dietitians on the app. We look forward to giving you personalized nutrition advice, it’s a treat that can be enjoyed year-round!