Sugar and cancer: What you need to know

04 February 2020 | Opinion | By Dr Pradeep Jain

Studies suggest that sugar and sweetened drinks may raise the chances of cancer by 70%. image credit- image credit-

“Don’t eat excessive amounts of chocolates. It’s not good for you”, is a phrase most of us have grown up hearing. As we grow older, we realize that chocolates contain sugar and that is the reason it is said to be harmful for us. Most of us know that excessive amounts of sugar can lead to diabetes or heart disease, more recently cancer has also appeared on the list. Our body uses sugar for energy; these cells also include cancer cells. However, cancer cells require 200 times more sugar than normal cells.

While there is no evidence that sugar can directly cause cancer, a recent study suggests that sugar and sweetened drinks may raise the chances of cancer by 70%. Sugar has many calories, and excessive consumption of it leads to weight gain, which can result in obesity. Obesity is linked to different kinds of cancer and several other diseases. It is a risk factor for development of breast cancer, large bowel, oesophagus, pancreas, kidney, liver, upper stomach, gall bladder, ovary, uterus, thyroid, myeloma (type of blood cancer), and meningioma (a type of brain tumour).

US National Library of Medicines and American Cancer Society suggest that sugar consumption and cancer are not directly related; instead, cancer is linked to obesity. Therefore, there is an indirect connection between the two. Adipokines, an inflammatory protein is released by fat cells. They have the ability to damage the DNA and they cause tumours. As the number of fat cells in your body increases, the number of these proteins also increase. When a person is overweight their chances of getting cancer increases, there are at least 13 types of cancer that they can get which includes breast cancer, colon cancer and liver cancer. Reports also suggest that after smoking, obesity is the biggest preventable cause of cancer.

A study presented at the American Chemical Society Fall 2019 National Meeting has found that DNA sustains more damage and gets fixed less often when blood sugar levels are high compared to when it is normal. This increases cancer risk. Scientists have said that the increased level of cancer risk is because of hormonal imbalance. Some cancers are caused due to high levels of insulin, the hormone that controls the sugar levels in our bloodstream. Fat cells can also increase the levels of oestrogen in our body. After menopause, oestrogen is made by fat cells can make cells divide faster in the breasts and uterus, thereby increasing the risk for cancer.

Although there is no direct evidence that sugar consumption is linked to cancer, American Institute of Cancer Research suggests that we should control our sugar intake. They recommend a diet rich in nutritious food like wholegrain, vegetables and fruit. Sugary beverages should be replaced with drinks that contain no or less sugar. Research says that a woman should have a maximum of 6 teaspoons of sugar per day and a man should have a maximum of 9 teaspoons of sugar in a day. However, most people consume 22 teaspoons of sugar in a day.

There is no proof that suggests that a sugar free diet can prevent cancer or help us survive if we are diagnosed with cancer. However, a good nutritious diet is needed for a better lifestyle. For cancer patients, a good diet can help in better recovery as cancer treatments take away a lot of energy and may result in weight loss.

Avoiding sugar may not stop cancer, however, it can reduce our chances of getting cancer to a great extent. Regular exercising and reducing sugar content can help us lead a healthier lifestyle and can help us maintain our body weight.


Dr Pradeep Jain, Fortis Hospital, New Delhi


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