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VCU Massey Cancer Center


Diet and nutrition: does sugar feed cancer?

VCU Health and Massey registered dietitian Allie Farley provides nutrition tips and information on the connection between diet and cancer. Visit Allie's Diet and Nutrition blog to read more. If there is there a topic that you would like to see covered, send your requests to

Most people associate the term “sugar” with white sugar. However, sugar can be found in our diets in two different forms, natural and refined.

Should I avoid sugar in my diet? No. Natural sugars are an important part of a healthy diet. Decreasing refined sugars may reduce your risk of obesity, which has been associated with several different cancers.

What’s the difference? Natural sugar is found in fruit, vegetables and dairy products. Foods with natural sugars play an important role in our diets. Natural sugars provide essential nutrients that keep our bodies healthy and can help prevent several diseases. Refined sugars are found in sweets, several beverages and many processed foods. Additionally, refined sugars are added to food items that are marketed to be healthier, such as "low-fat" foods.

The manufacturers of these “healthy” foods tend to rely on refined sugar for flavor. Most processed foods contain calories and sugar but little nutritional value. In contrast, fruits and vegetables and unsweetened milk have vitamins and minerals. Many foods with natural sugars also have protein and fiber, which keep you feeling full longer. 

Does sugar feed cancer? No. Research at this time has not shown that sugar alone feeds cancer or increases your risk of having cancer.

Over the last several decades, many of our diets have changed. We eat more foods with refined sugars, which in return has resulted in increasing obesity rates among adults and children. An association with obesity and certain cancers, including breast, prostate, uterine, colorectal and pancreatic has been identified.

Our bodies use sugar or carbohydrates as fuel. Without adequate carbohydrate intake, our bodies will convert other sources of nutrition for fuel. For instance proteins, which may lead to muscle loss and malnutrition. Eating whole foods that are low in refined sugars is key. What are whole foods? Whole foods are either unprocessed, such as fruit and vegetables or minimally processed, such as whole grains.

Massey does not endorse all integrative and complementary practices. We only recommend those that are known to be safe and have the potential to improve health when used alongside, and never in place of, professional medical care. All cancer patients are advised to consult with their physician before starting any integrative practice, as some may interfere with medical care.

Written by: Massey Communications Office

Posted on: June 20, 2018

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