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UnityPoint Health - John Stoddard Cancer Center

Exploring the connection between sugary drink consumption and cancer risk


Exploring the Connection Between Sugary Drinks and Cancer Risk

Sugar, sugar, sugar: it’s everywhere and it is having a profound effect on our health. This discussion explores the relationship of sugar consumption (particularly sugary beverages) and risk of cancer. This discussion is prompted by a recent article in the British Medical Journal highlighting the role sugary beverages play in the risk of developing cancer.

Consumption of Sugary Beverages

The consumption of sugary beverages has increased worldwide in the past few decades with people in the United States consuming 45-50% of their sugar calories in the form of sugary drinks. The health impact of sugar and particularly sugary drinks is well documented: they are associated with increased weight gain, being overweight and obese, particularly visceral obesity (belly fat), increased incidence of type 2 diabetes, independent of being obese or overweight, increased incidence of high blood pressure and increased incidence of cardiometabolic disease, including heart attacks. Sugary drink consumption was one of the behavioral risk factors that contributed the most to the increase in global deaths.

Sugary drinks are convincingly associated with the risk of obesity, which in turn is recognized as a strong risk factor for many cancers. In a large recent French study the authors concluded that increased sugary beverage consumption was positively associated with the overall risk of cancer and breast cancer, particularly post-menopausal breast cancer. When sugary drinks were split into 100% fruit juices and all other sugary drinks (including soda, energy drinks and sports drinks) the consumption of both types of drinks was associated with a higher overall risk of cancer.

The association between sugary drinks and the risk of cancer might be partially explained by their effects on promoting overweight and obesity (particularly visceral obesity, belly fat), which in turn are strong risk factors for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, post-menopausal breast, colon, ovaries, uterus, advanced prostate and kidney. Current evidence suggests that being overweight or obese might not be the only drivers of the association between sugary drink consumption and cancer. 

It has been suggested that sugary drink consumption promotes weight gain in the abdomen independent of body weight and this is particularly bad as belly fat might promote tumor growth through multiple inflammatory and pro-growth mechanisms. Another pathway could be the relationship between sugary drink consumption and it’s association with increased levels of insulin, as insulin is a hormone promoting cell growth. Also other chemical compounds in sugary drinks might contribute to cancer risk. Caramel coloring in sodas contain a compound called 4-methylimidizole (a compound defined as possibly carcinogenic to humans) and pesticides in fruit juices could also contribute to increased cancer risk.

More frequent consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is associated with a larger waist circumference and an increase in cancer risk. For all of you wishing to minimize your risk of cancer, eliminating sugary drinks (all drinks with sugar including fruit juices) may be one risk reduction strategy. Not only will this help reduce your risk of cancer but will also reduce your risk of weight gain and obesity, risk of developing type 2 diabetes, risk of cardiometabolic disease including risk of heart attack and risk of developing dementia. So,re-think your drink, skip the sugar and drink water. A cup or 2 of tea or coffee without sweetener is OK as well.


1)     Chazelas E, et al. Sugary Drink Consumption and Risk of Cancer: Results from the NutriNet-Sante Prospective Cohort. BMJ. 2019;365:2408.

2)     Makarem N, et al. Consumption of Sugars, Sugary Foods and Sugary Beverages in Relation to Adiposity-Related Cancer Risk in the Framingham Offspring Cohort (1991-2013). Cancer Prev Res;11(6):347-358.

3)     Hodge HM, et al. Consumption of Sugar-Sweetened and Artificially Sweetened Soft Drinks and Risk of Obesity-Related Cancers. Public Health Nutrition;21(9):1618-1626.

4)     Doyle SL, et al. Symposium 3: Obesity-Related Cancers, Visceral Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Insulin Resistance and Cancer. Proceed Nutr Soc. 2012;71:181-189.