Alberta Cancer Foundation

Sweet Deal

By: Michaela Ream

By Arxont, Courtesy iStock

Since ancient times, bees have been present across creation myths, folklore and as symbols of reverence, while their honey has represented sweetness, healing and even magic. Honey has been consumed for approximately 25,000 years during the Upper Paleolithic period and the earliest evidence of it being used as medicine dates back 8,000 years. Although some might question the magical elements of honey, there is truth to its benefits, especially when living with cancer.

“Cancer treatment is a marathon, and you have to think, which of the foods that I’m eating are going to fuel me for this marathon,” says Pamela Klassen, RD, PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, whose research focuses on nutrition-care strategies for people with advanced cancer.

The role of sugars

Sugar is one such fuel source our bodies need and use daily, but not all sugars are created equal. Natural sugars, those found in fruits as fructose and dairy products as lactose, as well as in complex carbs, are part of a balanced diet. These sugars are broken down in our bodies into glucose, which our cells use as energy.

Added sugars, however, are what dietitians warn about over-consuming. These are sugars that are added to foods during preparation, like white sugar or honey. Unlike natural sugars, these only provide extra calories and short bursts of energy. Excess added sugars are also linked to health issues like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. As cancer cells also use glucose as energy, consuming excess added sugars is easy energy.

World Health Organization recommends that less than 10% of your total energy come from added sugars.

That’s not to say you should cut sugar out of your diet completely, especially when living with cancer, Klassen warns. “While other cells in your body might struggle if you stop eating glucose sources, cancer cells adapt really quickly, so they’ll take what they need before any of the other cells in your body can get it,” she says.

Sweet deal

Although honey is technically an added sugar, it’s different. Honey, like sugar, is made up of fructose and glucose, but also has trace amounts of minerals and vitamins. Honey also has antioxidants, antibacterial properties and natural enzymes (which break down sugar into glucose), making digestion easier. Using honey (in moderation) as a support mechanism during cancer treatment can be beneficial to patients.

For people who experience changes or loss of taste, Klassen says adding sweetness, salts or acid can help make a dish more palatable. She suggests a honey glaze on chicken, or a teaspoon in a glass of milk can help. Compared to sugar, honey has a slightly lower impact on the glycemic scale (a value from 0-100 that ranks food or drink based on how much they increase blood sugar levels) than white sugar. The lower impact can be helpful for patients already at risk of high blood sugar.

Eating local honey is also a great way to support local beekeepers, but at the end of the day, Klassen says it comes down to maintaining a balanced diet and personal preference. “Food is a support mechanism for making sure the rest of the cells in your body can withstand that treatment your body’s taking,” she says.

A healthy diet includes starchy foods, fruits and vegetables, dairy products and, most importantly, protein. And maybe, if it helps, a spoonful of honey can help the medicine go down.

Local Beekeeping in Calgary

Photo courtesy Ol’ Grumps’ Honey

Will Pratt, owner of Ol’ Grumps’ Honey in Cochrane, shares more about local beekeeping. 

“We got into beekeeping because we were interested in the adventure of making our own honey. The fun of running a business with a product we are proud of has sustained our expansion from two hives to several dozen. I reckon we have 1,567,482 bees and our larger apiaries of 20 or so hives can make 2,000 pounds of honey. Different nectars can produce a wide range of honeys, varying in taste, colour and even crystallization. In Canada, honey from buckwheat is on the darker range. North of Cochrane, there is a considerable dandelion nectar flow in May and June and, a bit further east, canola can produce huge honey crops.”

Photo courtesy Ol’ Grumps’ Honey
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