Skip to main content

Health library

Back to health library

The sugar-cancer-diabetes connection: The unsweetened truth

Reap the benefits of a low-sugar, Asian-style diet.

By Rodney Samaan, MD, MPH

The fact that our diets can lead to higher rates of cancer should be no surprise to anyone.

The rates of breast and colon cancer in China and Japan are much lower than the rates in the United States, and diet and lifestyle play a big part. It is a telling trend that when people from China and Japan move to the United States and adopt the Western diet—with higher consumption of red meats and high contents of starch, sugars and high fructose corn syrup—their rates of breast and colon cancer increase.

The cancer-sugar connection

Dr. David Servan-Schreiber writes in his new book, Anticancer: A New Way of Life, that cancer feeds on sugar. This sounds a bit odd, but it’s true.

German scientist Otto Heinrich Warburg won a Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering that malignant tumors depend on glucose (digested sugar) consumption. Sugar-dependent tumors aren’t the only problem. High sugar consumption increases the amount of insulin in the blood. And insulin releases insulin-like growth factor, which helps stimulate cell growth—including cancer cell growth—and inflammation.

Dr. Servan-Schrieber’s theory is that we all have cancer cells in our bodies, and our role is to make sure that they do not grow. One way to do this is to maintain a low-sugar diet with a low glycemic index.

You can easily look up foods to see if they have a high or low glycemic index, but the basic rule is that fresh foods will have a lower glycemic index than processed food. For example, although there is sugar in fruits and vegetables, these foods have a low glycemic index compared to foods such as breads and corn, which have a high glycemic index.

Re-Orient your diet

Pay attention to the menus at most Asian restaurants, and you won’t see many desserts. Consuming processed sugars after a meal is not part of the traditional Asian diet. Desserts available at Asian restaurants normally include green tea ice cream or fruit. Compare this to a meal at an Italian or Middle Eastern restaurant, where the desserts may include tiramisu or baklava—sugar, cream and a high glycemic index.

By modeling your diet on the Asian style of eating, you can reap many of the health benefits enjoyed by people in China and Japan.

A matter of taste

There is no question that sugary soft drinks are some of the worst things that anyone can consume. But we often “hide” sugar in other beverages. If you drink sugared coffee or tea, gradually reducing the amount of sugar is one of the best things you can do for your diet.

Human taste buds adapt. The less sugar we consume, the less we miss it. Soon, sweets we used to love taste too sweet and we don’t want them anymore.

This change of taste can help keep weight down, because we don’t crave sugary snacks. But aside from weight loss, a change of diet can prevent the development of diabetes. Keep in mind that developing diabetes is not a benign process. Patients with diabetes have higher rates of heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. They also have higher rates of most cancers.

Dr. Rodney Samaan is an Invasive Cardiologist with Glasgow Heart and Vascular and can be reached for appointments by calling 270-659-3322.
Related stories