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Fat Tuesday: Sugar, obesity and the big C

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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By Cesarachp, via Wikimedia Commons

If you thought heart disease and diabetes were the  main problems associated with obesity and overweight, think again. The latest news is that being obese or overweight is a major factor in cancer risk and severity. Science writer Sarah C. P. Williams does a nice analysis of the available evidence in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Even worse, once you’ve been fat, losing the weight may not reduce your future chances of having cancer. Experiments in mice indicate a lasting effect of being overweight on cancer risk, even after slimming down. The relationship between how long, and how long ago, you were overweight and your cancer risks remains unclear.

Gary Taubes, author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat” tracks the problem to sugar, and explains that many human cancers rely on insulin, and a related hormone known as insulin-like growth factor, to grow and multiply. He convincingly argues that sugar intake, which causes chronically elevated insulin levels and insulin resistance, is the cause of many cancers. Taubes says he’s scared of sugar. Maybe we should all be.

Susana Martinez-Conde About the Author: Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are laboratory directors at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Follow on Twitter @illusionchasers.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Maureenataba 5:35 pm 05/29/2013

    According to a recent article in the New York Times, focusing on calories from sugar will do little to combat obesity since it plays only a minor part in the increasing number of calories being consumed by Americans ( Quite simply, sugars are sugars and should be consumed in moderation, like all foods and beverages.- Maureen at ABA

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  2. 2. sunnystrobe 10:38 am 05/30/2013

    The connection: sugar& cancer is very old hat indeed; Otto Warburg got the Nobel Prize around 90 years ago for showing that primitive cancer cells thrive on sugar as their ‘fast food’!
    Industrial sugar is a highly artificial concentrate of around 99 % fructose/glucose that does not exist as such in natural plant food, our original primate food.
    Little wonder then that our body system should react to this massive overdose with pathological results!
    As our brain needs sugar as energy it gets addicted to any overdose ; our digestive system tries to shunt away the surplus of sugary energy input by turning it into fat storage. Obesity is like a fatty tumor, caused by the Food Inc. that is lacing all its food with sugar ‘baits’. Buyer, beware! It’s easy to switch to eating raw fruits and vegetables before meals -like French crudites- to prevent overeating on energy-condensed food produced by cooking, baking, brewing, and distilling.

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  3. 3. OlgatheGreat 5:35 pm 06/3/2013

    Maureenataba: it’s not just number of calories, but propensity to overeat in the first place. Sugar and fat (and salt, flavorings, coloring agents) are key for making food hyper palatable

    To author: how is it possible that cancer rates continue to be high after weight loss, if Taubes’ explanation is correct? Lower weight improves insulin sensitivity, and it doesn’t make sense that insulin would stay elevated in the absence of overeating.

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