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One of the most talked about dietary trends of the past few years has been low-to-no sugar diets. Most recently, articles have surfaced attempting to link sugar restriction with cancer treatment, suggesting that a patient’s consumption of sugar may feed cancer cells.

It has been found that cancer cells are able to increase their glucose intake in order to fuel their rapid growth, circumventing their programmed cell death, which is the normal dying process every cell is meant to go through to keep our bodies functioning optimally. Because of this, researchers are experimenting to uncover any treatment implications. Can something as simple as reducing dietary sugar starve cancer cells, or even prevent them from occurring in the first place?

A number of media outlets were quick to sensationalize this information, effectively warning their readers to eat sugar—even nutritious fruits and starchy vegetables—at their own risk. However, there is more to the story.

You Aren’t Feeding Your Cancer

As this study shows, cancer cells are able to find the glucose they need despite how much or how little sugar we eat. Researchers suggest that they do this by over-producing a protein called PARP14, but further study is needed.

Ultimately, the most important point is that eating sugar does not equate to cancer growth. In fact, becoming fearful and obsessive over sugar restriction could be harmful to a cancer patient.

As Julie Baker, a Clinical Oncology Dietitian, states, “[All cells in] our bodies use glucose, the simplest unit of carbohydrate, as their primary fuel. Without adequate carbohydrate intake, our bodies will obtain glucose, or fuel, from another source. Possibilities include the breakdown of proteins we eat or proteins stored in our body, which may ultimately lead to muscle loss and malnutrition.”

In effect, if a cancer patient completely eliminated sugar from their diet, they could damage non-cancerous, healthy cells by depriving them of energy. Even further, becoming obsessive over your diet can lead to stress, which is much more damaging to a patient’s health.

Does this mean you should have your cake and eat it too? Sure, just not all the time. Focus on foods with natural rather than added sugars, as those with added sugars are likely highly processed, high in calories, and low in nutrients. Instead of demonizing one ingredient — fat, sugar—it’s best to think about a food as a whole.

A healthy diet means finding a balance and choosing whole, nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods when possible. According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, some steps you can take toward a healthier diet include:

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Choose whole grains more often.
  • Include a variety of lean proteins.
  • Drink water instead of drinks with added sugars.

A diet that focuses on eliminating a food group or ingredient can lead to nutritional imbalances, which can become dangerous. Before making any dietary changes or for help following a balanced eating plan that works for you and your treatment plan, talk with your doctor.