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Does Sugar Cause Cancer?

May 16, 2024

We all know that sugar is an issue if you have diabetes or other chronic health conditions. But does sugar cause or feed cancer cells?

We asked Andrew Salner, MD, the medical director at Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at Hartford Hospital.

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Sugar doesn’t cause cancer, but it can increase your risk.

The short answer to whether sugar causes cancer is no. Carcinogens are substances that cause cancer, and sugar doesn’t fall into that category.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t increase your risk of cancer.

“Sugar does not appear to be a carcinogen where it directly causes cancer,” says Dr. Salner. “However, there is evidence that sugar can increase the risk of cancer through obesity or metabolic syndromes.”

And your body does need sugar glucose.

All our body’s cells, including our brain, need the sugar glucose to survive. The issue is how much sugar we consume, and the foods we get it from.

“Consuming sugar isn’t the cancer risk factor,” says Dr. Salner. “The problem is the over-consumption of sugar, notably through highly processed foods.”

Natural sugar from foods like fruits, vegetables and dairy products has a place in healthy diet. But you should avoid or limit sugar from:

  • Ultra-processed foods
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Food or drinks with high fructose corn syrup

> Related: Does Sugar Cause Kidney Stones?

How sugar can increase your risk of cancer.

You shouldn’t have more than 200 sugar calories in a 2,000-calorie diet per day. Yet, many of us are – thanks to the increased presence of high fructose corn syrup as a sugar source. This increases your risk of obesity, and in turn, a whole host of cancers.

“Obesity-related cancers include breast, prostate, colon and rectal, kidney, liver, pancreas, uterine, ovarian and others,” says Dr. Salner.

Sugar also increases your risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of medical risk factors that include high triglycerides, low high-density lipoprotein, high blood pressure and  high fasting glucose.

Metabolic syndrome increases your risk for common cancers, including breast, liver, pancreatic, colorectal, endometrial and others.

Cancer survivors can have sugar, but should aim for a healthy lifestyle.

If you’ve had cancer, there’s no need to swear off sugar completely. Moderation is key, coupled with a healthy lifestyle.

Dr. Salner recommends doing this in a few simple ways:

  • Exercise a minimum of 150 minutes per week, with exercise at least five days a week. This could even be a brisk walk.
  • Limit carbohydrates, particularly with high fructose corn syrup.
  • Eat at least five daily vegetable and fruit helpings.
  • Limit alcohol intake and avoid tobacco products.

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6 ways to stay healthy with sugar.

If reducing your sugar intake seems too daunting, Dr. Salner shares these tips for sugar consumption:

  1. Stick to 100-200 calories per day from sugar.
  2. Have natural sugars like molasses, agave nectar, honey and maple syrup.
  3. Replace sugary drinks with unsweetened tea, sparkling water or sugar-free beverages.
  4. Add spices like nutmeg, ginger or cinnamon to foods instead of sugar.
  5. Replace your favorite desserts with fruit.
  6. Don’t forget to check the labels. If sugar is listed as the first ingredient, the product is likely high in sugar. Sugar can also be hidden as other ingredients including:
    • Fructose (sugar from fruits)
    • Lactose (sugar from milk)
    • Sucrose (made from fructose and glucose)
    • Maltose (sugar made from grain)
    • Glucose (simple sugar)
    • Dextrose (a form of glucose)

“If you need help, talk to your doctor,” urges Dr. Salner. “We can also refer you to registered dietitians, personal trainers and other specialists to help you live your healthiest lifestyle.”