World Cancer Day: Is Sugar And Cancer Linked?

sugar and cancer

4th February is World Cancer Day. The theme from 2019-2021 is ‘I Am and I Will’. It is an empowering call to action urging for personal commitment and represents the power of individual action taken now to impact the future.

Does sugar cause cancer? It is one of the most commonly asked questions. Given the fact that sugar in excess can increase the risk of numerous health conditions right from diabetes and obesity, most people have cut down on the intake of sugar. However, there are claims that sugar can also put you at risk of a wide range of cancers both in women and men. Is it really true? What does research have to say about the link between sugar and cancer? Well, this World Cancer Day, let us shed light on the relationship between sugar and cancer.

Sugar And Cancer: What Research Has To Say?

The consumption of sugar is increasing all over the world. However, its association with cancer is largely unknown. There is no direct correlation between the intake of sugar and the risk of cancer. However, several studies[1] have reported that excessive intake of sugar can increase the risk of several factors, which in turn can put you at risk of cancer. It has been suggested that diets high in sugars may promote carcinogenesis (cancer generation) by stimulating inappropriate synthesis of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I), which can lead to enhanced oxidative stress and promote weight gain[1].

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Various sugars naturally present in foods, such as fruit, vegetables and dairy products, partly account for sugars intake; however, highly processed foods and drinks in which sugars and syrups are added during processing or preparation, or sugars and syrups added at the table, have become more significant sources of sugars.

Although chemically identical, the physiological effect of sugars may differ depending on whether they are an integral part of a cellular structure of the food accompanied with micronutrients and bioactive compounds, or are free in solution, present in highly processed, fibre-depleted, rapidly digestible foods, and thus readily available for metabolism.

Moreover, according to a 2004 study published in the Nutrition Journal[2], diet and nutrients play a key role in increasing the risk of cancer. Intake of nutrient sparse foods such as concentrated sugars and refined flour products can contribute to impaired glucose metabolism (which leads to diabetes). Moreover, low fibre intake, consumption of red meat, and imbalance of omega 3 and omega 6 fats can also contribute to increased risk of cancer risk.

How Does Sugar Increase The Risk Of Cancer?

Eating too much and unhealthy food is one of the main risk factors for cancer. According to a study[3], overweight and obesity accounted for 14% of all cancer deaths in men and 20% in women in the US. Moreover, significant positive associations were found between obesity and higher death rates for cancer of the esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, kidney, stomach (in men), prostate, breast, uterus, cervix, and ovary.

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Several studies have indirectly correlated the risk of sugar intake to increased risk of cancer due to:

Excess of calories: According to the American Institute of Cancer Research(AICR) [4], eating foods loaded with sugar could mean intake of more calories (than you need). This can increase the risk of overweight and obesity, which in turn can up the chances of many common cancers including pancreatic as well as bowel cancer.  

Increased glucose metabolism: Refined sugar is a high energy, low nutrient food. Intake of concentrated sugars and refined flour products can lead to increased carbohydrate intake, which in turn ups the risk of impaired glucose metabolism.

Several studies[2] have revealed that there is an association between a diet with a high glycemic load and cancer. A high glycemic load was found to increase the risk of gastric, endometrial, ovarian, colon or colorectal cancers. Moreover, diabetes has also been linked with increased risk of colorectal cancer, endometrial cancer, and pancreatic cancer, which indicates that severe dysregulation of glucose metabolism is a risk factor for cancer.

Sugar and Cancer: How To Lower Your Risk?

The AICR recommends replacing sugary beverages with low or no calorie drinks. Foods which contribute to hyperinsulinemia, such as refined sugar, foods containing refined sugar, and refined flour products should be avoided and eliminated from a cancer-protective diet. Also, lower your intake of sugar in foods such as carr dry fruits and nuts to cookies, add fruits to make juices and sprinkle cinnamon or cocoa to tea or coffee.

Additionally, increase the intake of diet rich in nutrients such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits. But remember to restrict the total amount of calories through sugar.

-Allium vegetables (garlic, onion, leeks, and scallions) are particularly potent and have been found to be protective against stomach and colorectal cancers and prostate cancer.

-Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) contain sulforophane, which has anti-cancer properties.

-Selenium is a mineral with anti-cancer properties which can protect from colon cancer and lung cancer. Common food sources of selenium are whole grains and legumes, brazil nuts, nutritional yeast, and sunflower seeds.

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Remember that diet plays a key role in protecting against cancer. Hence, in addition to limiting your intake of sugar-laden foods increase the intake of fresh fruits and vegetables which are packed with anticancer properties.

(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, General Physician)

Recommended Reads:

5 Causes And Risk Factors Of Prostate Cancer

7 Common Signs And Symptoms Of Breast Cancer


1. Tasevska N, Jiao L, Cross AJ, et al. Sugars in diet and risk of cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Int J Cancer. 2012 Jan 1;130(1):159-69.

2. Donaldson MS. Nutrition and cancer: a review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet. Nutr J. 2004 Oct 20;3:19.

3. Calle EE, Rodriguez C, Walker-Thurmond K, Thun MJ. Overweight, obesity, and mortality from cancer in a prospectively studied cohort of U.S. adults. N Engl J Med. 2003 Apr 24;348(17):1625-38.

4. Sugar and cancer risk. The American Institute for Cancer Research.

5. Cantley LC. Cancer, metabolism, fructose, artificial sweeteners, and going cold turkey on sugar. BMC Biol. 2013 Jan 31;12:8.

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