On Carbs and Cancer

The “sugar is poison” ideology is wrong.

The “sugar is poison” ideology is wrong. While I’ve argued for reducing sugar for my entire career, I do think it’s wrong to perpetuate the idea that it is somehow toxic.

Sugar is in fruit — not toxic. Sugar is in breast milk — not toxic. Sugar is in our very bloodstream at all times. If it wasn’t, we would be dead. Our earliest ancestors ate sugar, albeit in vastly smaller quantities. Animals will even take great risks for it, as Winnie the Pooh taught us. Every culture today, including those who are eating healthy diets indelibly linked to low rates of chronic diseases and cancer, eat sugar. Hello baklava.

So, sugar is not a poison. The only rational message about the perils of sugar is that an excess is harmful. Just as an excess of oxygen, water or calcium is lethal. It is the dose that makes the poison.

Too much sugar and too many carbohydrates is a salient liability of modern eating. And while this statement lacks the visceral and poetic impact of “sugar is poison,” time-honored truths and common sense win in the end again and again.

Cane sugar, beet sugar and corn syrup, among others, and refined flours, which are pure starch, are cheap and used in copious amounts in our food supply, contributing mightily to our excessive intakes — and that’s very bad. We have been living and yes, dying, on a diet of unintended consequences. We now are left drowning in a roiling sea of obesity, diabetes and cancer. While this is just one facet of our modern dietary ills, it is such a central one that I find myself writing about it repeatedly.

While it’s no secret that foods like soda and donuts are packed with added sweeteners, the dirty truth remains that a frozen stir-fry dinner can easily have the same amount of sugar as 16 gummy bears! Sugars and starches are added to sweet foods like peanut butter and oatmeal, but also savory foods like tomato sauce and crackers. This overload of starch and added sugars invariably leads to obesity, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, elevated blood pressure and diabetes.

The food industry has been more than willing to sell us their products adjusted to our nutrient concern du jour. There are food products that are fat-free; sugar-free; low-carbohydrate; gluten-free; and salt-free. I swear I once found a fat-free, sugar-free, calorie-free barbecue sauce. Think about that. I honestly don’t know what it was, but I know it was not food.

Modern food products are built on a foundation of modern wheat. Some call it “Frankenwheat.” Simply put, it is a result of hybridization and cross-breeding that creates high yield, super-starchy crops. And products made from it are therefore hyper-starchy, even if they’re “whole grain.” This leads to inflated blood sugar spikes, excessive fat-storing, exaggerated inflammation and cravings. The scariest part is that it is in everything, even foods masquerading as “healthy.”

The underbelly of the health food industry is that often times, those products are not all that different from their maligned junky cousins. Packed with additives, fillers, preservatives, bleaches, conditioners and “natural flavors,” whole wheat bread is now more similar to pastry than ever before. Indeed, two slices of whole wheat bread can now raise your blood sugar more than two tablespoons of sugar, which is like eight or nine Hershey Kisses! Vanilla almond milk clocks in at three teaspoons of sugar per serving, or four Herskey Kisses. Cheerios Protein has thirteen times more sugar than the original. So even if you try not to indulge in sweets and work hard to eat healthy it is important to remember that our idea of healthy food cannot always be reconciled with ostensibly healthy or healthier food products.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center published shocking results of a new study that, when you think about it, aren’t really all that surprising. Researchers found that those who eat a diet high in starches and sugars may be as much as two times more likely to suffer from lung cancer than those who don’t. Remember that spike in blood sugar? A spike in insulin follows, which triggers compounds that cause cells to grow, increasing the risk of cancer cell proliferation.

While this may sound new and scandalous, it really isn’t. This is a relationship that has been, and will continue to be studied and scrutinized by scientists all over the world. I really do wish that “feeding cancer” was as simple as sugar and starch. If it were, my job would be much easier and less nuanced, and then we can all go out for a drink (but that’s a topic for another post). Alas, cancer initiation, proliferation and metastasis is so much more complicated than that.

Let’s reasonably take this research to mean that processed foods should be limited. Let’s not misinterpret it to mistakenly believe that all carbohydrates are the proverbial poison or toxin. We must remember the value of true whole grains, which Harvard describes well. Over and over, research supports that high-quality whole grains (not Lucky Charms made with whole grains) improve health in many ways.

I would likewise be remiss if I did not point out the very big difference between natural and added sugars. Foods like fruit, milk and sweeter veggies like beets, carrots or sweet potatoes inherently contain sugar. These sugars are naturally packaged with fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals which do not affect blood sugar or metabolism the same way as the added stuff. No one took a banana, added some sugar, and sealed the peel back up. Bananas never gave anyone diabetes or caused obesity, either. Rather, it’s the banana-flavored bars and other processed foods that have become the foundation of our modern food environment that has sugars and sweeteners added. These added sugars must be limited.

Only good food is food. Eat real, whole foods.

My food recommendations:

  • Focus on real food that the earth made, which is to say things that do not have food labels or lobbies.
  • Vegetables should be eaten daily. The more the better. Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and winter squashes are also incredibly healthy, but do need to be considered a starch when meal planning.
  • Beans and lentils are healthy vegetarian proteins, but are also carbohydrates, and likewise need to be considered a starch when meal planning, especially for people with pre-diabetes or diabetes.
  • Quality whole grains are things like bulgur, barley, wheat berries, faro, quinoa, oats, brown rice and spelt.
  • Try sprouted grains and sprouted grain products like Ezekial 4:9 bread and Alvarado Street Bakery products. I love sprouted grains because they are higher in protein, pushing levels of starch down. Sprouting grains also may make digestion easier for people who tend to be sensitive. You can sprout anything by rinsing and soaking overnight on the counter before cooking as usual.
  • Experiment with flours made from whole grains or sprouted grains. Sprouted grain flours are considered flourless because they’re not traditional flour. That does not mean they are gluten free, nor does it mean they are something to be eaten in excess.
  • If you absolutely must use a sweetener, stick to natural fruits like ripe bananas or dates. Liquid sweeteners can be maple syrup or honey in small amounts. I prefer these over agave because they are lower in fructose, which bypasses normal metabolism and jumps straight to the liver causing fat retention and elevated triglycerides.