For many women, developing cancer—especially breast cancer—is a fear lurking in the back of their minds, and for good reason: Invasive breast cancer will develop in one out of eight American women during their lifetime. And although both breast cancer diagnoses and deaths have been on the gradual decline since 2000, it’s still the top cancer killer of women in the United States.
Prevention is a tricky topic, as genetics—having a mother or sister with the disease—appears to play heavily into whether a woman will be diagnosed herself. But according to a new study out of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, diet may play a bigger role in a woman's likelihood of developing breast cancer than previously thought. Specifically, women with high-sugar diets may be more at risk, according to lab tests conducted on mice.
In the study, mice were divided into three groups: two fed either diets high in fructose or sucrose proportional to the amount of sugar consumed in the typical Western diet, plus a control group fed a starch-rich diet. After six months, 30 percent of the mice fed starches had developed breast cancer, while those fed sugars had a breast cancer rate of 50 to 58 percent. The study also found that the mice fed sugars experienced a higher rate of tumors forming in other parts of the body and metastasizing to the lungs.
“We determined that it was specifically fructose, in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, ubiquitous within our food system, which was responsible for facilitating lung metastasis and 12-HETE production in breast tumors,” said co-author Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine at MD Anderson, in a hospital statement.
A sugar-rich diet is just one risk factor for breast cancer among many, including age, sex, and family medical history. But the MD Anderson study is just the latest in a string of reasons to cut back on sugar, which makes up a larger and larger portion of most Americans’ plates every day. Sugar has been linked to the skyrocketing obesity epidemic—especially among children and adolescents—as well as to diabetes and hypertension. The white stuff has even been shown to excite the teenage brain more than other foods, and in adults can be as addictive as marijuana.
Policymakers appear to be taking note, even if food producers aren’t. (Soda companies have doubled down on attempts to redirect conversations about the causes of obesity, for instance, from the sugar content of their drinks to the need for physical activity.) The Food and Drug Administration may require food makers to include a daily value percentage for added sugar on all product labels—a requirement drafted earlier this year and currently under review. And the just-released federal dietary guidelines emphasize further reductions in sugar consumption for all Americans to roughly 10 percent of all daily calories.
These are all good steps toward creating a culture that looks warily at sugar, similar to the policies that preceded the drop in cigarette smoking. May we all take heed—after all, our health hangs in the balance.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont