Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cancer and the Sugar Monster

Jim has a sweet tooth; in fact, Jim has a mouthful of sweet tooths. Being a rather picky eater myself, I was astonished—no, appalled--when first introduced to some of his eating habits. Cottage cheese with maple syrup? A half inch thick glob of frosting sandwiched between two saltines? Grits with grape jelly?

At Cracker Barrel he orders two (three, when he is self indulgent) of the little bottles of syrup with his pancakes. (Campbell calls him the Syrup monster.) As my great-great grandmother said, “I do believe he would eat a turd if it was dipped in frosting.

Over the course of our marriage with my emphasis on healthy eating (and a lot of nagging) Jim has tempered his sugar hunger and modified his eating habits. But the natural desire is still there. If cancer cells love sugar, his are in a constant state of blissful satiety.

From the beginning of our cancer journey I have heard the maxim, “Cancer Feeds on sugar.” I have been told—not by doctors come to think of it—that cancer patients should avoid sugar. With someone like Jim, it is easier said than done.
My goal is always to fix healthy meals full of the nutrients he needs, but during the chemo process my resolve weakens, and I let him eat as he pleases. When his mouth is full of sores, and his taste buds have been altered by the toxic drugs, when nothing sounds good to him, and he is losing weight, I give up and give in to his demands. His ideal diet would consist of yogurt for breakfast (rather than the fruit and steel cut oatmeal I prepare), a triple chocolate DQ blizzard for lunch (rather than a beet, carrot, lemon and apple cocktail), and a mocha caramel shake from Sonic for dinner (rather than chicken, quinoa, and roast vegetables, lovingly prepared at home.) I’m sure you’re saying, “Who can blame him?” Seriously, several weeks into chemo, I do my best to accommodate his changing tastes—homemade Mac-n-cheese, pastas, and soups, but he still sneaks off for his sweet treats. What’s a girl to do?

First of all she hits the computer for the lowdown on sugar and cancer.

The idea that cancer feeds on sugar has been around since 1924 when Dr. Otto Warburg a Nobel Prize winning cell biologist wrote, "Summarized in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar." Many people who referred to his work in later years misquoted Warburg's statement by saying, "Cancer loves sugar." Although parts of Warburg’s theory have been disproved, the misquoted statement has held fast.

The truth: Cancer cells like all cells need sugar to survive, but these sugars come from the metabolism of carbohydrates necessary to sustain the life of the organism. Cancer cells do use sugars (combined with specific proteins) at a higher rate than normal cells but sugar does not cause cancer.

Before you run out to Dunkin Donuts for a bag of cinnamon glazed twists, you need to hear the rest.

While sugar doesn’t cause cancer, it has no nutritional value other than to supply energy. As Mom always said, “If you fill up on snacks you won’t want your dinner.” A diet saturated with sugar leaves no room for the nutrients vital to overall good health. Plus, sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, depression, and a plethora of other maladies.

Even though sugar doesn’t exactly “feed” cancer cells, it is a good idea to limit the amount of simple sugar you eat. This is because when you eat a lot of sugar, your body produces a lot of insulin, which is not good for your health. Recent findings indicate that it may be this abundance of insulin which contributes to the proliferation of cancer cells. (Dr. Rios, obviously aware of this research, has Jim taking Metformin, a common diabetes drug.)

Should you eliminate simple sugars from your diet? You can try. It certainly won’t hurt you. Will eliminating sugar cure your cancer? Unlikely. Must you deprive yourself or your spouse of the foods he loves? No, but keep the sugar monster in check. Moderation. Moderation. Moderation.

Bottom line: Does sugar cause cancer? No. Should Jim continue to consume the equivalent of forty teaspoons a day? Absolutely not.