By: Michelle Dickinson
As New Zealand’s single biggest cause of death, cancer is a disease that we will all have some experience of in our lives.
Cancer starts when mutated cells grow out of control crowding out our normal healthy cells. These cancerous cells have mutated DNA which rewrites the instructions that tell a cell how to function and grow causing them to divide and grow uncontrollably.
Although there are multiple factors that may cause cancer, last year the New England Journal of Medicine published a report showing that 13 separate cancers can be linked to being overweight or obese.
Interestingly, being overweight and obese also changes the body’s management of sugar which can lead to type 2 diabetes where patients can have high blood sugar and insulin levels.
This relationship between sugar and cancer is an interesting one and there are many unproven theories that relate consuming sugar to increasing cancer risk.
Although research shows that higher levels of blood sugar and insulin are both linked to the risk of developing cancer, there is still no conclusive relationship between eating sugar and cancer.
The myths around sugar and cancer stem from a few papers that show a relationship between increased sugar intake and cancer risk, but they are mostly from patients who were already overweight or obese and so may be at an increased risk already.
Recently, sugar has been getting some bad press, however, sugar molecules are really important for our bodies as they are needed by our cells to obtain energy. The cells use a process called aerobic respiration to get their fuel by breaking down digested food into energy through a series of processes that require oxygen.
Cancer cells are very different around how they break down sugar molecules, choosing to get their energy by fermenting the sugar in an anaerobic or without oxygen way.
This fermentation process is about 15 times less efficient and results in the cancer cells needing more sugar than normal cells to produce the same amount of energy.
To try and further understand this fermentation process, scientists looked at yeast cells containing a protein called Ras, which has been found in almost half of all cancerous human cells. The Ras proteins can become overactive and produce too much uncontrolled cell growth.
The researchers found that as long as the yeast cells had access to sugar, they continued to aggressively grow uncontrollably implying that the consumption of sugar by cancerous cells stimulates tumour growth.
This research published in the journal Nature Communications suggests that reducing the growth of cancer cells could occur by reducing the cells ability to carry out the fermentation reaction and thus starving it of fuel.
Interestingly, it wasn’t necessarily the dietary consumption of sugar that increased the risk, but the natural blood sugar concentration (which is typically higher in obese patients) that could be fuelling the cancer cells.
There is a common myth that sugar feeds cancer, the truth, however, is that sugar feeds all of our cells, both healthy and cancerous.
Whether cancer is fuelled by dietary sugar or not, what we do know is that eating a diet high in sugar can lead to weight gain and it is this extra weight that has been correlated with increased cancer risk not the dietary sugar itself.
As the scientists look into solutions to try and starve cancer cells by preventing the fermentation process from happening, the research is clear – one of the best things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer is to reduce your body weight, and cutting sugar is one of the easiest ways to do that.
Source: NZ Herald