Why so many people believe cutting sugar can fight cancer

Tumor cells eat sugar. A lot of sugar. And many people believe this simple fact can provide a solution to fighting brain tumors. 

Let’s start with a quick background cells and energy. All cells require energy, and that energy comes from a sugar called glucose. All the food a person eats, whether carbs or proteins or fats, gets broken down into glucose. Glucose circulates in the bloodstream and cells turn glucose into a molecule called ATP, which is then used for every cellular process that requires energy. 

Healthy cells make 36 molecules of ATP, give or take, for every one molecule of glucose. But tumor cells are extremely wasteful by comparison, producing not 32, but just two units of ATP. As a result, tumors consume much more sugar than healthy cells. 

Some people look at all the sugar that a tumor consumes and say, OK, if a tumor needs so much sugar to grow, then it follows that to fight a tumor, you want to starve it of sugar. 

Spread of colorful plant-based foods.

This is the core argument of Dr. David Servan-Schreiber’s popular book Anticancer: A New Way of Life. Dr. Servan-Schreiber advocates for cutting out sugar, avoiding food contaminants, supporting the immune system, and applying stress-reduction techniques, and claims that there is scientific backing that these lifestyle techniques can lead to survival. 

Unfortunately, no malignant brain tumor can ever be cured with lifestyle changes alone. Brain tumors always need medical attention. You will want a medical team that includes a neurosurgeon and a neuro-oncologist, and it is a great idea to ask your doctor about diet changes you’re thinking of making. Most will be supportive of common sense changes like cutting sugar intake. And if you are thinking of more drastic changes like a vegan diet or a keto (a.k.a. very low carb) diet, they can walk you through some of the potential pros and cons. 

Keto diets, for instance, have seen at least some potential, as this research team in Michigan found. Yet at the same time, such diets can lead to problems like unhealthy weight drop and wanted side effects.

That said, there is plenty of interest from the mainstream medical community in how tumors might be starved. For instance, a team at UCLA found in lab studies that a drug that disrupts tumor sugar intake can stop the growth of a glioblastoma. Such drugs could become part of the cancer-fighting toolkits if they prove effective in clinical trials.

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