SUGAR: DOES IT CAUSE CANCER


We all know that cigarettes are the ultimate unhealthy, cancer-causing evil of human indulgence and no reasonable person would, say, allow their 5-year-old to smoke. But what if giving your kid a cookie or an ice cream cone is just as bad?
In a recent New York Times Magazine article, health investigator Gary Taubes raised the question of sugar’s toxicity after seeing a lecture given by Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, a leading expert on childhood obesity and a specialist in pediatric hormone disorders.
Lustig asserts that sugar is responsible for the massive increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers in America—and not just because of everyone’s favorite ingredient of evil, high fructose corn syrup. Lustig says that all forms of sucrose—beet or cane sugar, regardless of color—are every bit as harmful to humans as high fructose corn syrup.
So, just how alarmed should we organic-pop-drinking, brown-rice-marshmallow-treats-with-organic-cane-sugar-eating people be? Is it possible we’re poisoning ourselves and our kids, even as we assume we’re making healthier
sweetener choices?
The Science of the Sugar Bowl
Taubes tells us it is basic chemistry that blows the real-sugar-is-more-healthy-than-HFCS idea out of the water. They are virtually identical in terms of the way they are processed in the body. Refined sugar is one molecule of glucose bonded to one molecule of fructose, to make a 50/50 split. HFCS is 45% glucose to 55% fructose—close enough to make no difference in terms of how the body reacts to each.
So, if we’re being told that HFCS’s effect on our bodies causes disease and obesity, and there is no difference in the way our bodies metabolize it than if we were consuming real sugar, then you may want to take a step back and look at your consumption of real sugar as well.
Does My Liver Look Fat In These Pants?
It isn’t just the empty calories of foods with sugar (whether refined or HFCS) that is the problem, according to Lustig. The key is in the way that the body metabolizes the fructose—a component of all sugars that is not present in other starches like potatoes and bread.
Fructose is metabolized mostly in the liver, whereas glucose is metabolized in all the body’s cells. In lab rats and mice, when the liver gets a big enough shot of fructose, it converts it to fat and induces insulin resistance.This is what makes it so dangerous if it does the same thing to humans, and the evidence says it does.
Metabolic Syndrome: Dark Lord of the Disease
Studies in the 1970s showed that the consumption of sugar raises triglycerides (fat), which is a risk factor for heart disease. Sugar was also directly linked to type 2 diabetes. Since then, scientists have found that a condition called metabolic syndrome may be the most significant risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.
Metabolic disease is characterized by abdominal fat and insulin resistance, both of which are directly linked to sugar consumption. Insulin resistance is caused by a fatty liver, which is caused by metabolizing too much fructose.
Where is Cancer in All This?
Since 2004, researchers have also found strong links between obesity, type 2 diabetes, and many cancers. According to the NY Times article, “most researchers will agree that the link between Western diet or lifestyle and cancer manifests itself through this association with obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome — i.e., insulin resistance.”
The key is that insulin resistance causes the body to secrete more insulin, which promotes the growth of tumors. Cancer cells, in effect, feed on insulin, using it as fuel to grow and spread.
Must We Put Down the Doughnuts?
The good news is that, in lab research, when rodents with fatty livers stopped eating fructose, their livers returned to normal and their insulin resistance went away. More studies need to be done to prove the link in humans, as well, but the correlation between high sugar intake and disease in humans is strong enough that more scientists are focusing on the question.
Meanwhile, if fructose makes the liver fatty and creates insulin resistance, which causes obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and feeds cancer, you may want to examine how big a part it plays in your diet. And yes, if you care about your health, you should probably put down the doughnuts.

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