Fat and sweet – how your sugar habit could kill you

We’ve had a bumper crop recently of unhealthy diet and lifestyle stories,with the latest being some beautifully informed opinion on excessive meat eating and its association with dropping dead from perfectly preventable diseases. The spEak You’re bRanes response is to make snide comments about the godgivenness of a full English breakfast, and the value in enjoying life unhealthily and dying young, rather than living forever on lentils and water.

Strike while the iron’s hot has always been a good strategy, so what better time to highlight the relationship between sugar and cancer?

It has long been known that obesity is a leading cause of diabetes, but less well understood is the link between diabetes and increased cancer risk. From population studies we know that diabetics are up to twice as likely to suffer from pancreatic or colon cancer as otherwise healthy individuals. With obesity among European children approaching 20% in some areas, you can see why many are worried about the implications for public health in supposedly advanced societies.

Researchers led by endocrinologist Custodia García-Jiménez at the University Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid have discovered a key biochemical mechanism that links obesity and diabetes with cancer. It is associated with high sugar levels, which increase the activity of a gene implicated in cancer cell growth. García-Jiménez and her colleagues were looking at how intestinal cells signal to the pancreas to release insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels, and found that the ability of the cells to secrete a hormone known as GIP is controlled by a protein called β-catenin. The activity of this protein is strongly influenced by sugar levels.

Increased β-catenin activity is known to be a major factor in the development of many types of cancer. What the latest research tells us is that high sugar levels lead to the accumulation of β-catenin, and this in turn results in cell proliferation: cancerous growth.

“We were surprised to realise that changes in our metabolism caused by dietary sugar impact on our cancer risk,” said García-Jiménez. “We are now investigating what other dietary components may influence our cancer risk. Changing diet is one of easiest prevention strategies that can potentially save a lot of suffering and money.”

I like the way that García-Jiménez factors money so succinctly into the diet and disease equation. Maybe this needs to be stressed more.

Suffering and money, suffering and money, suffering and money,…….

Further reading

Chocarro-Calvo et al., “Glucose-Induced β-Catenin Acetylation Enhances Wnt Signaling in Cancer”, Molecular Cell 49, 474 (2012).