Science of Food: Where sugar meets cancer (column) |

Science of Food: Where sugar meets cancer (column)

Sugar comes in many forms and can affect cancer growth.
Courtesy Getty Images | iStockphoto


What: “Simplifying Health and Cooking” with Dr. Lisa Julian

When: Wednesday, Aug. 3, 1-3:30 p.m.

Cost: $49. Advanced registration required

For more information or to register visit:

Humans love sugar. This comes as no surprise since our brains are wired with a reward system when we find sugar, which used to be a rare encounter in nature. With such easy access to sugar in our modern times, especially in the concentrated doses or refined forms found in sugary drinks and processed foods, many Americans have become diabetic and obese. The link between high sugar intake and the high occurrence of diabetes and obesity that now plague our country is obvious.

But perhaps what is not so obvious is how dietary sugar also effects cancer growth. Here in this month’s Science of Food column, I’m writing on the role sugar plays in cancer progression. Sugar comes in many forms.

If you are unfamiliar with the different terms for sugar (carbohydrate, glucose, fructose, sucrose, table sugar, etc.) refer to my past article “Simplifying Sugars” at

What is cancer? Firstly, we must understand how cancer cells are different than normal cells. Simply put, cancer cells grow at a much faster rate than normal cells. This faster cell growth means more nutrients and more energy is required to keep up with the rapid cell division and replication; therefore faster metabolism. To accommodate the energetic demands of the tumor, most, if not all, cancer cells shift to an altered state of metabolism described as the “Warburg effect.”

First observed back in 1923, this altered cellular state in cancer cells can not only metabolize glucose up to 200 times faster than normal cells to provide energy for the tumor to survive, but it also uses sugar in a different way converting glucose to lactate (instead of pyruvate in normal cells). It is now being recognized that this reprogramming of cellular metabolism is a hallmark of cancer and, therefore, a viable therapeutic intervention point.


I have explained in previous columns how the body operates with the help of millions of proteins sending and receiving “signals” as part of complex network of interconnected pathways. Cancer cells communicate using a different set of signals than normal cells that promotes survival and resistance to cell death. The processes called “apoptosis” (cell death) and “angiogenesis” (synthesis of new blood vessels) are two well-studied “signals” in the grand orchestration of signaling events that are involved in keeping cancer cells alive. Dr. Thomas Graeber, professor at UCLA, published work in 2012 investigating how glucose deprivation in cancer cells activates anticancer signals leading to cell death. These studies and others offer insight at the molecular level that provides even more support for cancer patients to adopt a low carbohydrate diet.

Excess sugar causes inflammation. As we well know, sugar activates the insulin-signaling response. Once it receives the signal, the pancreas releases insulin to process the glucose present in the bloodstream for immediate energy use or for fat storage. Sugar is also connected to estrogen signaling (less well-known), and both signals are connected to cell growth. In the clinic, “evidence exists that chronically elevated blood glucose, insulin and IGF-1 levels facilitate tumorigenesis and worsens the outcome in cancer patients (Klement and Kämmerer, Nutrition & Metabolism, 2011).” This is in part due to the acidic environment that is created and the “inflammatory signals” that accompany hyperglycemia, when the body exists in a state of high blood sugar.

It is now well established that inflammation and cancer are intimately linked. In fact, anti-inflammatory drugs are often employed as part of modern cancer treatment regimes, and active research continues on the connection between inflammation and cancer. The large consumption of refined sugars and highly-processed, grain-based foods signals to turn on inflammation in the body and feeds tumors via the Warburg effect. No doubt cancer cells love sugar. Cutting off their sugar supply will slow down the rate of tumor growth and may even activate the signals to turn on cell death mechanisms.


It is imperative that cancer patients incorporate dietary interventions to lower sugar intake as part of any treatment plan. Where does sugar come from in our food? Sugar comes in the form of bread, rice, potatoes, corn, and many other “grains” — the so-called complex carbohydrates. This includes wheat and gluten, which are known to promote inflammation. Fruits also contain sugar in the form of simple sugars. The especially dangerous refined sugars are hidden in almost every processed food product in your supermarket.

To lower carbohydrate intake, avoid all processed foods and fill up on organic vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, fish, lean organic meat, legumes and healthy fats, like coconut oil and omega-3 rich foods. Eat few grains, and eat fruit and dairy in moderation. Sugary drinks and alcoholic beverages should also be avoided. Replacing sugar with other sweeteners like Stevia or Splenda is not the answer either.

Our bodies have not evolved to eat processed and sugary “food-like substances”; our bodies want whole foods that contain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber, antioxidants and various other nutrients we need to nourish our body and our immune system. Where sugar meets cancer is a story that exemplifies the intimate connection between diet and disease, a connection that cannot be overlooked when treating cancer of any kind.

Lisa Julian Ph.D. has a passion for organic chemistry the “molecules of life” and its application to food and health. She’s teaches Science and Nutrition at CU Denver and CMC. She can be reached at (970)401-2071 or

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