When you’re battling cancer, you want to do everything possible to improve your prognosis. Exciting research published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that making a simple change in your diet can have a significant impact on your health.

Most people who die from cancer don’t die from their primary cancer, which can often be surgically removed, but from cancer cells that have metastasized to another part of the body. The liver is one place cancer cells like to go and grow. In fact, metastatic liver cancer is more common than primary liver cancer.

The study found that colon cancer cells that migrate to the liver learn to feast on fructose, the sugar that’s extremely common in the American diet not so much because it’s found naturally in fruit, but because it’s added in great quanitities to processed foods.

Why is that so potentially significant for cancer patients? The liver is a major place in the body that stores and breaks down excessive fructose. So the theory is that reducing the amount of fructose eaten could deter the growth of these cancer cells. And if cancer hasn’t yet spread to the liver, reducing the amount of fructose eaten might reduce the risk of liver metastasis taking hold.

The enzyme that the liver uses to break down fructose is called ALDOB, and colon cancer cells that find their way to the liver adapt to produce the same enzyme. The metabolized fructose fuels their growth in the liver, in which is like a candy store to these cancer cells, said Xiling Shen, PhD, one of the study’s researchers.

Blocking ALDOB could be a new way to manage liver metastasis, and Dr. Shen’s team is working on a drug to do just that. But in the meantime, it makes sense for people with liver metastasis to cut back on fructose consumption, Shen said.

Because of all the added sugars in packaged and processed foods, the average American eats four to five times more fructose today than a century ago when our main source was the fructose found naturally in fruit. It sounds counterintuitive, but experts say that unless you’re gorging on it, fruit doesn’t contribute significantly to the problem (and fruit contains antioxidants and an array of other healthful nutrients). Here are the foods you unquestionably want to avoid:

  • All types of refined sugar, such as white, brown and powdered sugars and packaged foods with high amounts of it like sweetened breakfast cereals
  • Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup—the primary sweeteners used in candy, sodas, sweetened juices and commercial baked goods
  • Agave, honey, molasses, sorghum, maple and and pancake syrup

This study looked at metastasis of colon cancer, but several other cancers also often travel to the liver, including lung, breast, pancreatic and stomach cancers and melanoma. It’s reasonable to assume that other cancer cells would also take advantage of any fructose in the liver and grow quickly, said Shen.

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