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A New Link Between Sugar and Cancer

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Previous research has revealed a noteworthy association between sugar and cancer, as scientists have long recognized that tumors convert significantly higher amounts of sugar into lactate, compared to healthy tissues. This phenomenon, known as the Warburg effect, has been well documented.

And as new research on the dangers of excess sugar consumption continues to build up, there is now more reason than ever to suspect that sugar could actually promote cancer.

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New Research On Sugar and Tumor Growth

More specifically, the Warburg effect describes the reality that cancer cells break down sugars more rapidly than most other types of cells. Earlier research in this field was primarily focused on mapping out metabolic peculiarities associated with the Warburg effect, but this new research went a step further. Leaning on the existing body of evidence surrounding this phenomenon, three Belgian researchers and organizations (VIB, KU Leuven, and VUB) combined to begin a nine-year study in 2008, with their findings recently being published in the journal Nature Communications.

The primary finding of the research was that yeast with high levels of sugar were found to overstimulate the same types of proteins that are commonly mutated inside human tumors. As a result of these mutations, tumor cells grow faster, thus potentially leading to the quicker development of cancer. As one of the lead scientists, Johan Thevelin of KU Leuven, stated, the research findings are “able to explain the correlation between the strength of the Warburg effect and tumor aggressiveness.”

In other words, the scientists identified a direct correlation between the introduction of sugars and tumor growth as related to the yeasts that were tested. Therefore, it is important to note that this finding cannot be generalized as a causal relationship between all sugars and tumor growth. Nevertheless, their findings do clarify how the Warburg effect stimulates tumor growth, and provide a probable mechanism for looking at other types and sources of sugars that may act similarly. More research is necessary in order to unequivocally identify the primary cause of the Warburg effect, and regardless, this research does not prove that limited sugar consumption would prevent cancer from developing from alternative mechanisms. Even so, this research may be looked at as a major step in this direction.

The Importance of Avoiding Excess Sugar

Most of us already recognize that limiting your sugar intake is critical to maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. But in light of this new research, it is possible that we have been underestimating the necessity of limiting the consumption of sugar. If sugar has the tendency to promote not only diseases such as obesity and diabetes, but cancer as well, there is all the more reason to avoid it, even if we seem healthy in other respects.

So how much sugar is appropriate? The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that an individual’s sugar consumption should be below 5 percent of their total daily calories, which amounts to about six teaspoons of sugar for an average adult — or much less than the amount present in a single can of sugar-sweetened soda. And with that, it’s important to note that their “diet” counterparts aren’t a better alternative. Learn more in my article The Health Risks of Drinking Diet Soda Are Worse Than We Thought.

Clearly, it is important to become keenly aware of your sugar intake and to steer clear of excess sugar consumption, if you are not already. It is absolutely critical to check the nutrition facts labels on the foods we purchase to look for and beware of  “hidden” sugars, as these products contain the majority of many people’s sugar consumption. Likewise, it’s important to recognize that we are typically consuming greater amounts of sugar when we eat in restaurants, as opposed to preparing our own means at home, which is almost always a healthier alternative. Moreover, when cooking at home, another way to limit our exposure to sugars is to use natural sweeteners and sugar substitutes, and thereby avoid adding excess sugars to our foods and drinks.

Heightening our awareness of our sugar consumption, and limiting it to stay within the recommended guidelines, is one of the healthiest habits to develop. It may not only save you from the diseases we commonly associate with a diet heavy in sugar, but from cancer as well.


Derek is a technical writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the health care field, having first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware. He is a contributing author on a number of textbooks in the medical field, ran a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and has written a variety of other pieces from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal interest in health and wellness by playing multiple sports and running marathons. An insatiable traveler, he spent 16 months working and living abroad while traveling through South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.


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