I do have a sweet tooth. Or all 32 of them. I like many kinds of sweet treats, I love anything chocolate.
But, especially since my cancer diagnosis, I am extra vigilant when it comes to nutrition and health. Researching arbout healthy habits for eating, I read over and over again how detrimental to our health sugar can be. It will make you heavy and obese, it can make you sick with a number of serious diseases, it will do a number on the health and appearance of your skin, hair, and nails.
I tried to quit cold turkey. I failed. I tried to quit under hypnosis. Short-term victory. I tried to limit the intake to a bare minimum. Hard to do but doable. For a time being. I tend to relapse around the times like Halloween or Christmas, Valentine's Day or the kids' birthdays, or a simple weekend, or when I'm blue. You get the point. I'm addicted. I blame the family for ordering deserts when eating out and sneaking in sweets, I blame my coworkers for bringing donuts and cookies to work and sharing them with everyone, I blame the kids and the neighbors for giving out the candy on Halloween, I blame myself, of course, for being weak and giving in. Every. Single. Time.
It is easy to see the pattern here. The truth is, sugar is quite addictive. It is a drug. This stuff is as addictive, if not more, than the other white stuff, cocaine. Once you’re on it, it is very, very difficult to get off it. But, apparently, after a period of detox and probably some suffering (headaches, moodiness, etc.), it is possible to give it up and with some effort, forget about it. So, this New Year’s, my resolution is to quit sugar once and for all. Surviving colon cancer stage 4 is not easy but if you know this cancer's survival rates (not very high when it gets this advanced), you'll want to fight it with everything at your disposal. And fighting cancer with food is much easier than getting on chemo and other forms of treatment.
How bad (really) is sugar?
Not an easy answer to give. The short one would be: that depends on what kind of sugar and where the sugar is coming from!
Dr. William Li, the author of the highly informative book, Eat to Beat Disease, writes on his website that according to most current research, ‘added sugar’ is now the main source of the sweet stuff in our diets. Added sugar means that it is not a sugar inherent to the food itself. For example, apples, melons or pineapples are very sweet and contain a good amount of sugar, but it is inherent to them. A sweet berry yogurt on the other hand will have almost 15 to 20 grams of added sugar in one tiny cup, and it is not sugar from the berries but rather simple table sugar or corn syrup added to the finished product.
On average, Americans consume more than 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day. Here are a few examples of sugar in everyday foods:
can of Coca-Cola: 39 grams (almost 10 teaspoons)
jelly donut: 6 grams (1.5 teaspoons)
bowl of average cereal: 7-10 grams (2-3 teaspoons)
one TBS ketchup: 3.7 grams (1 teaspoon)
cup of tomato sauce: 20 grams (5 teaspoons)
This is not good at all. That means, that even if one abstains from soda and candy, there is still lots of sugar, and most of it added, in our diets. Even foods that do not seem sweet, like tomato sauce or ketchup, have sugar lurking in them.
“Shockingly, over 68% of barcoded food products sold in the US contain added sweeteners — even if they are labeled as “natural” or “healthy.” (Popkin BM, Hawkes C. The Sweetening of the Global Diet. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology. 2016)
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been suggesting that, for optimum health, our daily intake of added sugars should never exceed 5% of our daily calorie intake. For an average person, that would amount to no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar.
Trying to avoid sugar? Read the labels!
Sugar is everywhere. It is not difficult to spot it in obviously sweet products such as sodas, candy, cookies and doughnuts. But sugar is also in many foods where it occurs naturally: vegetables, fruits, breads and pasta. All of those fall into the category of carbohydrates, and while sugar can be called many names, it is important to know what is and what is not sugar and which types are best to avoid, limit, or exclude out of the diet entirely. So, it is very important to read the labels and train your eyes to look specifically for the dreaded “added” sugar amounts.
“Naturally occurring sugar might be called different names such as fructose, lactose, sucrose, and glucose and if one wants to stay away from it or keep record of how much one consumes it is important to remember these different sugar names” Dr. William Li
In addition to these naturally occurring sugars, there are also sugars that are man-made and these might be the worst kind such as the dreaded high fructose syrup. In fact, there are estimated 56 different names for sugars, natural and man-made, that one can find on food labels.
Do sugars feed cancer?
When I was going through my cancer journey, the thought of sugar feeding the cancer was giving me nightmares and adding to the overwhelming stress I was already under. I read a lot about this concept and it appears that the jury is still out on this concept. Mayo Clinic, for example, suggest that it is a myth that “sugar feeds cancer”. However, they do not encourage consuming large amounts of sugar because of other dangers lurking behind this “food”.
It turns out that our cells need certain amount of sugar (its simplest form, glucose) in order to function properly. If they don’t get the glucose, they can survive for a while on another type of food, ketones, which the body start producing when sugar is not present. This is the basis for the popularity of the keto type diets out there and there is a subgroup of health advocates convinced that keto is the only way to go while facing cancer. From what I read, it might be true especially for brian cancers, but there is not enough evidence to claim that keto is the optimal diet for other types of cancers. Here is more on the topic form MD Anderson.
Whatever it might be, the bottom line is that overindulging in sugar will lead to reduced insulin sensitivity which is connected to the body’s inflammatory responses, can lead to obesity and increased risk to develop a multitude of health problems such as, among others, high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, and, possibly, cancer.
“Food and beverages that raise blood sugar block the production of stem cells, lowering your body’s ability to repair organs”
My dance with sugar
Rather than to demonize sugar, I have tried to eat mostly foods with low-glycemic (GI) index and avoiding sweetened and processed foods containing little or no fiber, like pre-packaged white breads, pasta and cookies. (For a comprehensive list of Glycemic Index of different foods click here). Instead I make my own sourdough bread and eat at most a slice per day. For a sweet tooth or to sweeten homemade baked goods I opt for whole wheat flour, almond meal, and I sweated with bananas or apple sauce, stevia, fruit such as dates or raw honey.
When I first received my dietary recommendations from my naturopath upon my cancer diagnosis it was strictly keto with almost zero sugar (I was allowed one teaspoon of honey per day). No bread of any kind, no starchy foods of any kind, no potatoes or yams, no beans, no bananas, apples, pears, or melons. I took it to heart and went full keto. I lost so much weight that my oncologist classified me as malnourished. But I was convinced that I had to stay away from sugar in any form in order to ward the cancer away.
After my colon surgery, this dietary approach was unsustainable for one additional reason. My GI track just would not take it. All the green veggies, berries, high fiber nuts and juices were going straight through me. Additionally, I was agonizing over the fact that my diet consisted of so much animal products when I was conscious of the dangers of meat and dairy as driving force behind many cancers.
“Despite what you might have been told, complex carbohydrates – which include whole grains, vegetables, nuts and beans – are not the enemy.” Dr. William Li
As research suggests, these complex carbohydrate molecules are broken down by digestion into glucose and used by every cell in the body to generate the energy necessary for each and every cell to function. In contrast to simple sugars like, complex carbohydrates like whole-wheat bread or a wholesome sweet potato, are high in fiber, thanks to which they are released into the bloodstream very slowly. This helps with digestion and blood sugar control, and will also mean you’ll feel fuller for longer: which also means, less cravings!
My plan for 2020: kick the habit, stay course, get healthier.
Having tried keto, and eating anything and everything for a while on chemo, eventually, I had to change my approach and opted for the Mediterrenean style diet. I wrote more extensively about my search for “my optimal” diet here. To make the long story short, adding whole grains and other complex carbs to my diet has proven beneficial to me: better digestion, better GI health, regaining weight. With one caveat: the sugar addiction. Yes! I wish I could have one square of dark chocolate only or one date-sweetened cookie! But I can’t. If there is more in the house, they’ll be gone in no time. And this is what I will be trying to change come this January 1st.
Right after Christmas and New Year’s, I plan to:
There will be no desserts for me aside once on a weekend, and only a limited portions.
I’ll have to delete my Baking board on Pinterest (cry) and discard the recipes for delicious Polish, German and other Ethnic cakes and cookies.
I’ll be making my own jellies and sauces with drastically reduced added sugars or substitutes by stevia or monk fruit sweetener.
I’ll be using more spices such as cinnamon to trick my taste buds into believing the food is sweeter than it actually is.
I’ll write about my progress sometime mid-January. Wish me luck!