One way to lower your cancer risk: Cut the extra sugars

a jar of sugar being tossed in the trash
Carolyn Lammersfeld of CTCA says one of the easiest ways to watch your waistline is to cut extra sugars from your diet. Learn more.

The grapefruit diet. Atkins. South Beach. Low-fat. Low-carb. High-protein. It seems like there’s a fad diet for every taste bud out there. While the cornucopia of weight-loss plans varies widely on what you should and shouldn’t eat to lose weight, there’s one ingredient just about all of them agree should be cut: added sugars. That’s because excess sugars are not just empty calories; they also contribute to weight gain, which may in turn lead to obesity. With obesity linked to 13 types of cancer, watching your waistline is important for your health, not just your wardrobe.

“The main focus should be on lifestyle factors. Obesity links to poorer outcomes and a higher chance of recurrence if someone is diagnosed with cancer,” says Carolyn Lammersfeld, Vice President of Integrative Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). “I suggest people follow the same diet that we recommend to our patients—an anti-inflammatory diet that is mainly plant-based.”

Watch for added sugars

Lammersfeld says that one of the easiest ways to improve your diet is to cut back on added sugars—not naturally occurring sugars like fruits, vegetables and lactose in milk products, but the sugars and syrups that are added to foods during processing or preparation, including those you sprinkle on at the dinner table. These high-calorie sweeteners can be found in a variety of foods and beverages, including sodas, juices, sports drinks, bake goods, cereals, yogurts, coffee creamers—even granola, fruit snacks and salad dressing.

The empty calories can add up quickly. For example, a 12-ounce plain soda has 39 grams of added sugar, while a 20-ounce vitamin water can have 33 grams of added sugars. That 16-ounce Mocha Frappuccino? With the whipped cream, you could be adding 47 grams of extra sugars to your diet in one sitting.

That’s way more than any American should have in a given day. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugars per day for women and 38 grams for men. To put that into perspective, one teaspoon equals four grams of sugar, so no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day, if you’re a woman, or more than nine if you’re a man. And yet, the average American consumes 89 grams of added sugars per day—two to three times the recommended amount.

Follow the SPLASH plan

One way to cut back on sugars, Lammersfeld says, is by following the SLASH plan:

Stay in for meals: Gain control by cooking at home and packing lunch and snacks.

Look at labels: Identify the difference between naturally occurring and added sugars on nutrition labels.

Alternate sugar sources: Use or make your own condiments and sauces without added sugar.

Sweeten yourself: Buy unsweetened products and sweeten them yourself to use less of any alternative sweetener.

Hydrate: Rethink what you are drinking and choose water more often.

“There are lots of healthy ways to feed your sweet tooth than by adding sugar to your diet,” Lammersfeld says, adding that berries and apples are examples of tasty fruits that also pack a nutrient-rich punch. “Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that can be important to protecting cells from the kind of damage that can lead to cancer and other diseases.”

Research linking poor diets to chronic diseases like cancer has become so persuasive that the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last year that it will change its food label guidelines to help consumers make healthier, more informed choices at the grocery shelf, though it has not released updated timelines for when the labels will go into effect. The new guidelines will require food manufacturers to list added sugars on their product labels, in both grams and percentage of daily allowance. “Scientific data shows that it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugar, and this is consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” the FDA said in its announcement. Another important change to food label guidelines: serving sizes will be updated to reflect the more generous amounts Americans generally consume today than in 1993, when the sizes were last established.

Besides cutting added sugars, Lammersfeld says there are lots of changes you can make to give your diet a healthy makeover, including looking at existing labels for clues (sugar, honey, dextrose, etc.) that sugar has been added. She offered these additional tips:

  • Eat generous amounts of foods that do not come in labels. These are the natural products, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains.
  • Limit the amount of foods that have labels, especially the processed and prepackaged variety.
  • Get between 21 to 38 grams of fiber each day.
  • Try to consume to one to three servings of fermented foods and beverages daily, such as yogurt, kefir and miso.
  • Eat two servings of fish twice a week or a substitute such as ground flax seed.

“It’s all about making smarter choices and, when you do indulge in a sweet treat, just do it in moderation,” Lammersfeld says. “And become more educated about food labels. They come with lots of information that can make a big difference in a healthy diet.”