by Samantha Turner
In the hilarious new documentary, That Sugar Film, Australian native, Damon Gameau, shows us what happens to the human body when it consumes a “healthy” sugar-heavy diet. Some of you may be thinking, sugar and healthy in the same sentence, are these people crazy? You’ll see what we mean as you read on.
Motivated by the upcoming birth of his first child, Damon decided to do an experiment on himself to find out the truth about the effects of sugar on our body (similar to the popular documentary “Super Size Me”). For 60 days, he ate 40 teaspoons of sugar per day. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 9.5 teaspoons per day, but reports most American adults consume about 22 teaspoons daily. Instead of eating “junk food,” Damon ate foods considered “healthy” by most Americans, but that are actually loaded with sugar. Things like low-fat yogurt, cereal, sports drinks and juices.
The results are shocking. Not only did Damon gain inches of visceral fat around his waistline, he also developed fatty liver disease, early type 2 diabetes and found his mood and concentration were negatively affected. That Sugar Film is highly entertaining, educational and will seriously change the way you look at sugar.
We recently had the opportunity to ask Damon, who created, directed and starred in the film, some questions about this very popular and controversial nutrient, sugar. The responses have been edited slightly for ease of reading and consistency.
Ashley Gilday: You talked in the film about changing your diet & lifestyle to impress your girlfriend, Zoe, when you first met her. What was your diet and lifestyle like before?
Damon Gameau: [laughing] Before that, I had no understanding about nutrition and what kind of role it played in my life. I was like many males – just eating to survive. I usually had about 2 cans of coke a day, take-away pizzas and a burger of sorts. I gravitated towards foods that were quick and easy. I also smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. I was a self-destructive time bomb. Thankfully, just in the nick of time, I met a really good woman, Zoe (who later became my girlfriend). As soon as I met Zoe, I knew based on her healthy glow and radiance that my diet wasn’t going to cut it anymore and that I had to change. It all happened very naturally, really. She started feeding me all kinds of healthy foods and making me these very green colored smoothies [which I pretended to enjoy in the first few weeks of dating her]. Then I started feeling so much different… better. People started commenting on how much healthier I appeared. That was the beginning of my education of the role food and nutrition could play in my life.
AG: Why did you decide to only eat foods considered “healthy” instead of just eating sugary “junk food,” like cookies and ice cream?
Damon Gameau: There was so much debate about sugar and health at the time when we started [working on this film] about 4 years ago. I thought the only way to find out the truth was to do an experiment on my own body. Part of me knew that if I just drank coke and ate chocolate and those kinds of foods, I was going to get sick. We all understand those things are treats and we shouldn’t have them all the time, so it’s inevitable that my health would deteriorate. As I was walking down a food market aisle one day, I picked a can of tomato soup and saw that it had 8 tsp of sugar in it and I thought, God, I don’t reckon many people would know that there’s that much sugar in a can of soup. I mean, there’s nearly as much [sugar] in a can of coke! I then spent the next 2 hours in the supermarket walking around like some kind of weirdo just picking up labels and reading different things and pretty much had my mind blown. Just seeing BBQ sauce having 2 tsp of sugar in a 1 Tbsp serving was astounding – that is more sugar per oz. than chocolate sauce! I just couldn’t believe it. So I wondered if I could actually do an experiment where I could nix any junk food and just eat sugar in these types of foods – so that’s really how it all started. A couple of days ago we became the highest grossing documentary of all time in Australia and I think it’s because people are completely shocked when they see it [the film] because they’re eating these [high-sugar] foods that are considered healthy. They’re giving them to their kids, putting it in their lunch boxes and I guess it is a bit of a wake-up call for some people.
AG: You have a statistic in the film stating that if you removed sugar from standard supermarkets, only 20% of the items would remain. Is this true in the US as well as in Australia?
Damon Gameau: That statistic comes from the US. It’s from the Sugar Science people. They’re a fantastic group of 12 scientists that have come out of the University of California. They’ve now reviewed 8,000 papers that link sugar to disease and they are on the front line of speaking out against the Sugar Association and the food industry that keeps telling us, “oh that’s all rubbish, sugar is fine.” These guys are the ones that have the proof. I think that number has actually gone down since we made the film as that was nearly 3 years ago. I think it’s down to about 75% now. So it has gone down 5%, which is good, but still, that is an astronomical amount of sugar in the food supply. The fact is that most people, in fact 90% of people, have no idea that there’s so much sugar in the food supply; that’s where we need to start raising the questions and that’s the point of the film. We don’t want to demonize sugar and tell people they can’t ever have it again; it’s just about education and saying you probably don’t have a clue about how much you’re actually having. If you do want to have that ice cream or chocolate at the end of the day, that’s fantastic, just know where your other sugar is coming from, so you can keep the overall numbers down.
AG: Given that so much of the food at the grocery store contains added sugars, how do you recommend people approach grocery shopping to avoid those items?
Damon Gameau: Well look, I think the simplest thing to do is to eat real food. Eat real foods, avoid processed packaged ones, and your body knows what to do. Eating this way raises the right appetite suppressant hormones and triggers things that tell you when you’re full; it does what its supposed to do. The problem is that we’ve intercepted those signals with so much processed food and so our bodies spiral out of control. We don’t quite know how to regulate ourselves. Eat fruits and vegetables in their whole form. Snack on nuts if its your thing. Have eggs for breakfast. Just try to keep it simple. Go back to basics and don’t worry about any special magic shake. Just do what you’re supposed to do – what your body wants you to do; which is to eat real food.
AG: I’m curious about your thoughts on juicing. In your film, you talk about how juicing removes the fiber that helps our bodies feel full, so we end up drinking large quantities of sugar. Given that juicing is such a huge trend here in the US, do you think people are misinformed?
Damon Gameau: The recent World Health Organization numbers that came out a few months ago that said for optimal health, we should be having no more than 6 tsp of sugar a day, or 5% of our total caloric intake. That includes fruit juices and added sugars. They acknowledge that once you remove fruit sugars from its fibrous home (as with juicing), it affects the metabolism in your body. It’s really important for people to know that. I don’t have a problem with juicing, I just think people need to understand that, yes, you might lose weight with juicing, but the key fact with sugar is it tends to store internally. About 30% of people with metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes are skinny. You can look fantastic from the outside, but if you’re having excess sugar, all the fat can gather on the inside of your body [and cause harm]. We’ve all heard the sad story of someone in his late 30’s or early 40s’, out jogging one day who drops dead suddenly of a heart attack. That’s because he appears to be fit, but on the inside, there’s all this gathering of fat going on. I certainly don’t think juicing is as bad as sodas and whatnot, but I think people just need to be careful. If people are having a juice every now and again, it’s fine. It’s just when people are having it constantly, that is what we need to be concerned about.
AG: When you go to the grocery store you can read on the ingredient list to determine if there is added sugar. How do you navigate going out to eat at restaurants? Eating on the road?
Damon Gameau: Zoe and I have talked about this quite often. Because we’re so diligent at home and we’re very careful, but we’re not Nazis about it, we loosen the chains [so to speak]. When we’re out and about, we’re not those people who harass the waiters and ask about how many teaspoons of sugar are in the sauce; but we care. We still make sure we order the right foods. We try to avoid the big fried things and focus on the healthy fats and proteins in dishes. You just learn to read a menu and lookout for certain things. If there are sauces, we’ll sometimes have them on the side. That way you can actually apply the amount you want instead of having it completely bathed in a sauce that’s full of sugar. So there are smart things to look out for. In fact, we’re writing a textbook at the moment, all based on these kind of questions. We’ve just finished a comprehensive list of the different types of foods in restaurants that use a lot of sugar; things like Chinese food and Thai food as they often have a lot of sugar [in their recipes]. It’s just about being aware. If you’re going to go out every now and again and have a Pad Thai, go for it and thoroughly enjoy it! As long as you’re not having it every night and your sugar is low in other areas, you can afford to enjoy it when you go out.
AG: There is a growing issue with childhood obesity here in the states. What role do you think sugar plays in this epidemic?
Damon Gameau: I think, obviously, sugar is not totally to blame for all our health problems. However, I think more and more science is pointing to the fact that it is a very large player, if not the major player. The fact that non-alcoholic fatty liver disease now affects nearly more than 1 in 3 Americans and it’s more and more prevalent in children, is evidence. Once the liver turns to fat, it pumps that fat out into the bloodstream. That’s when you get insulin sensitivities, which then traps fat in your body. You start to store fat and put on weight. So more and more signs in the studies are starting to suggest that sugar plays a fundamental role in this. I think we need to take the first step and lower the amount of sugar we consume and then see where we’re at [health-wise].
Check out Damon’s journey in That Sugar Film here.
What do you think? Is sugar to blame?