Not So Sweet: Sugar May Drive Certain Cancers

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

Lowering consumption of processed sugars has become an ideal health goal. We know that a diet high in processed sugars can drive a number of conditions including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and tooth decay.

Research published in a 2016 JAMA article linked excess consumption of sugar to increased risk of dying from heart disease — even if you aren’t overweight or obese. This latest study suggests that we need to control our sugar intake because certain cancers seem to have more of a sweet tooth than others.

Several studies have shown a link between sugar and cancer risk. All cells need sugar for energy. Scientists have suspected for some time that many cancer cell types are heavily dependent on sugar as their energy source. Sugar was implicated in a study done at the University Rey Juan Carolos in Madrid showing that certain levels of sugar consumption “feed” cancers.

A study published in January 2016 in the online journal Cancer Research suggested a strong link between high levels of dietary sugar, typically found in the current Western diet, and increased risk of breast cancer and metastasis to the lungs. This was supported by a separate study on sucrose and tumorigenesis in mammary glands of the breast.

Research out of the University of Texas identifies squamous cell carcinoma (SqCC) lung cancer as uniquely linked to sugar for its energy supply. It’s important to note that about 25 percent of all lung cancers are SqCC, a subtype of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

The researchers decided to focus on differences in metabolism between two subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer — adenocarcinoma (ADC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SqCC). SqCC has been one of the more difficult lung cancers to treat effectively. Identifying risks and causes could help to reduce the prevalence of this hard-to-treat lung cancer.

The researchers accessed the Cancer Genome Atlas, which provides information about 33 types of cancer based on data gathered from over 11,000 patients. From that resource they extrapolated that a specific protein, responsible for transporting glucose into cells, was present in higher levels in lung SqCC compared to lung ADC.

The protein, called glucose transporter 1 (or GLUT 1), acts by taking glucose into the cells where it provides basic energy, fueling cell metabolism. So despite earlier assumptions that the two subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer would have similar metabolic patterns, the researchers found this significant difference.

To be sure that the GLUT 1 levels were uniquely higher (and more active) in squamous cell carcinoma of the lung, the researchers examined human lung tissue, isolating other cancer type cells, and animal models with similar cancer types.

Those results confirmed the findings of adenocarcinoma being “less” dependent on sugar, and squamous cell carcinoma being “more” dependent. The researchers found that GLUT 1 levels were also higher in four other squamous cell carcinoma cancers: head, neck, esophageal, and cervical. This suggests that it’s the cancer cell type itself that consumes loads of sugar, regardless of location and regional tissue type in the body.

Of course, this information is only of value if we can somehow figure out strategies to impair the growth or inception of this type of hard-to-treat cancer. The researchers are planning a new study to see the impact of a sugar-restricted diet on the progression of SqCC of the lung in animal models. The average American consumes more than 150 pounds of processed (refined) sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners combined each year.On average, that’s almost 45 teaspoons of sugar daily. The researchers point to the fact that we are all “addicted to sugar.”

We associate excess sugar consumption easily with obesity and diabetes, but we don’t seem to want to grasp that our diets may be feeding the dreaded “C” disease: cancer. Any research that can definitively show that lowering our sugar consumption can help to prevent or lower risk of developing any number of cancers might well propel us to limit sugar consumption, especially among kids and teens.

There seems to have been a shift by parents to restrict soda consumption, but we also need to focus on the many foods like juice and fruit snacks, candy, flavored milks, sweetened cereals, and a host of other foods that are just too high in sugar.

The latest dietary guidelines recommend that all age groups get less than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars. For children ages one to three, that means less than 100 calories daily from added sugars. For girls ages 14- 18, the target is less than 180 calories from added sugars daily.

One 12-ounce can of soda contains, on average, 186 calories from sugar (39 grams per can). Add that can of soda, or two, to the many other foods we eat that are high in sugar and you begin to realize just how challenging it is to remove this ingredient from our daily diet.

The best way to start is to identify foods high in sugar. In addition to the short list mentioned above beware of yogurt with added fruit, canned soups, salad dressings and condiments (like ketchup), tomato sauces, breads, granola bars, protein bars, and dried fruit. Shopping the perimeter of the supermarket will help you to fill your cart with foods that tend to be lower in sugar and better for your waistline and your health.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”