Fast Take: The Latest Iteration of Sugar Panic

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This week, headlines were terrifying. Sugar has been the focus of a great deal of research and debate lately (our concerns regarding studies with a mypoic focus are well-established). But this week, the panic reached a new level with a series of headlines blaming sugar for breast cancer and cancer in other organs based on a newly released study. Dr. Megan Meyer, PhD, a scientist with a background in nutritional immunology, and Kris Sollid, RD broke down the biggest concerns about the scary headline claims.

mouse-studies1. Upping the dosage: The study uses a range of somewhat relevant ratios for its sugars doses, at least in terms of the percent of calories from sugars in the mouse diet. 50% of calories from sucrose in any diet is considered very high, while 0% isn’t realistic. Currently, Americans get 13-17% of calories from added sugars. What isn’t reported in this paper is total consumption. Therefore, it is not clear how many calories the mice actually consumed. In other words, it’s impossible to say how many calories from sugars any of the mice (in any treatment group) consumed, only that the available food contained a certain percentage of calories from sugar. Consider this—some mice in the “high sugar” group may have actually eaten less sugar than mice in the “low sugar” group, and vice versa. 

2. Mice Advice? The models used by the researchers were mouse models, which scientists agree cannot be translated directly to human health. In this case, the mice used in the study were cancer-prone, meaning that the researchers had either genetically modified or irradiated the mice so they would develop cancer. This change makes the results even less reliable for health application.

3. False Pretenses: Sugar does not make cancer cells grow. All cells require glucose (a type of sugar) for energy but giving more sugar (regardless of type) to cancer cells doesn’t mean that those cells’ growth will be sped up. Conversely, depleting cancer cells of sugar doesn’t equate to slowing down the growth. 

The Biggest Concern: There are many steps you can take in your diet to reduce your risk factor for developing certian types of cancer. Diets rich in plant foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans may reduce risk for some types of cancer such as breast, oral, stomach, and esophageal. Obesity is another risk factor for cancer that is affected by diet. Consuming more calories than you need can lead to obesity. Physical activity also reduces risk of cancer both by reducing risk for obesity and independently helping to reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. The late Dr. John A. Milner, PhD, former Chief of the Nutritional Science Research Group in the Division of Cancer Prevention of the National Cancer Institute at NIH, once explained: “we still have evidence that going to a reduced caloric diet that’s higher in fruits and vegetable and lower in meat reduces risk of cancer, those are things we should be talking about for the general population.” Taking steps to consume more fruits and vegetables, have a balanced calorie budget, and eat meat in moderation can make meaningful changes in your cancer risk. Distracting from those well-established steps with a single, mouse-based study could be another mouse-trap that sets us all on the wrong course.