The Dark Side Of Added Sugars

The above clip is simultaneously one of the most hilarious and eye-opening moments in the new documentary, That Sugar Film, out in limited release this Friday. The film follows Australian director and star Damon Gameau as he embarks on an experiment: For two months, he would eat 40 teaspoons (160 grams) of added sugar each day. Although that sounds like a lot, it's actually the average amount of added sugar a young, Australian male consumes in a single day. That's what makes this clip truly stomach-turning — Gameau certainly was not munching on that chicken with a white sugar garnish just for kicks. Of course, we also know that sugar is not always the enemy. Dr. Ellen Albertson, PhD, RDN, CD, a registered dietician not affiliated with That Sugar Film is quick to stress that, of course, "people need sugar." But given the toll the experiment took on Gameau's body (he gained 19 pounds in those two months and started down the road toward heart disease, diabetes, and cirrhosis of the liver), how do we draw the line? The American Heart Association spoke out about added sugars earlier this year, placing a safe limit on how many teaspoons men and women, respectively, should have in a day. We're finally starting to learn just how many unassuming, seemingly healthy, foods contain startlingly high, hidden amounts of sugar. This was the crux of Gameau's project — those 40 teaspoons of sugar would not come from soda or candy, but from low-fat yogurt, breakfast cereal, and other sneaky (frequently marketed as "low-fat") sources of the sweet stuff. Dr. Albertson explains that avoiding excessive amounts of sugar is a matter of knowing where to look. "If you’re eating things that don’t have labels — meat, beans, grains, dairy products, things that are not processed — [there won't be] any added sugar at all," she says, adding that the sugars that do occur in these label-less foods (which also, of course, include fruits and veggies) are natural, not added. "When we’re talking about added sugars, we’re talking about everything from...cane sugar to high fructose corn syrup [or] brown sugar. It comes in lots of different forms...But in the natural form, it’s fine." It's true — as we've seen before, sugar shows up under many, many aliases in ingredients lists, sometimes making it tough to spot. "I just was blown away when I started reading labels at the kind of places sugar was hiding," says Gameau, echoing Dr. Albertson. Check out our conversation with Gameau below, in which he tells us about the process of making the film, what he hopes viewers will learn, and whether he ever considered quitting.
Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
What inspired this project?
"I was aware that there started to be a lot of press and discussion about sugar, but the messages were very conflicting...I was just as confused as anybody...And I thought, Let’s just do an experiment to see what sugar does to the body. If we do get some results, it’ll be interesting to share that. That’s why we did the experiment first...We just didn’t know what to expect. Then, the more my body fell apart, [the more] we realized that there was something in the story." You planned to stay active during the experiment — did that exercise regimen change over the two months?
"I just wanted to try to keep it as normal as possible. That’s what the average 19-30 year old in Australia [does] who’s having that much sugar a day. I was eating a low-fat diet that recommended, You eat these low-fat foods and you’re going to be fine, as long as you exercise, and that’s what I did. As much as I could, I stuck to that...[and] I did it without having any junk food." Considering how radically you were changing your diet, what were your concerns starting out? Were you scared?
"[My] naïveté really shows in the fact that I [set the experiment] for 60 days. We could have done it in 30, really, and it would have been just as powerful. I didn’t think we’d get any results, because I wasn’t eating any junk food. I was never really scared until my liver started turning to fat, and all that happened then was that we made sure I had more regular blood tests and made sure I didn’t do anything too stupid to get to the point that I couldn’t turn back. "By the end, I was very close to cirrhosis of the liver, where [the fat in his liver] hardens, and that’s tricky to come back from. But thankfully, the doctor said, 'You know, you’ve made your point now. Enough’s enough, and you need to stop eating these foods.' I was probably more sensitive to it, because I hadn’t had so much [added sugar] previously, and I did sort of inundate my body with it." Did you ever consider quitting?
"I did discuss it with my wife at one point. I thought, We’ve gone too far. We didn’t put it on camera...but there was one day where I sat down with the doctors and they said, 'You haven’t reached the point yet where you’re going to do any permanent damage,' so I was pretty confident that it might take a while, but I would be able to reverse it and get back to being healthy again. The biggest shock for all of us was how quickly my body did turn around when I went back to eating real foods again...You can turn things around very quickly." What was the most disgusting thing you ate?
"[Laughs] I’ve got to say, the chicken [in the clip above] was surprisingly delicious, but the water cracker sandwich was know, those crackers are made for delicate French cheeses; they’re not made for dry sugar cubes. That was probably the most disgusting. I had a moment there [where I thought], What am I doing? Funnily enough, that’s one of the most powerful things to people, especially, because they can really see it. That’s what we’re doing! We’d never [eat this much sugar on a cracker] for real, but we’re quite happy to do it once it’s dressed up and cleverly marketed in a package to us. But it’s no different."

"Sugar really does overpower the taste buds."

Damon Gameau
At what point during the experiment did you start noticing any major changes? Did you notice mental or physical changes first?
"Definitely the mental stuff hit me first, again, because I hadn’t had much sugar for a long time. The first 10 days were very, very tough, mentally. I just felt so much more lethargic. I was just going up and down all day, [because] I wasn’t eating those fresh, whole foods anymore. I noticed it even in my sleeping patterns. I guess that was probably the biggest surprise, but I think I almost adapted to just get used to that way of living...I think a lot of people live their lives like that without even realizing it. "And then the physical stuff, I could tell I was putting on weight...I was certainly aware of permanently having this kind of belly. I just felt sluggish, that’s the best way I can describe it...I just didn’t have the vibrancy and energy that I had when I was eating real food."

What was that final, 60th day of the experiment like for you?
"[I was feeling] relief. The difference is I had a reference point, because I had a couple of years of not having much refined sugar and eating healthy, real foods that I looked forward to getting back to that place. That’s where I normally lived...most people don’t have that reference. They’ve probably had sugar every single day of their lives...My recovery period was a lot shorter than it could be for other people, because I was excited I didn’t have to eat like that anymore. That’s the best way I can describe my emotions, it was just relief at the end."

What was the first thing you ate after you completed the 60 days?
"I think it was some vegetables...I’ve got to be honest, it just tasted horrific...Because I’d been so used to sweets, everything tasted so bland and boring. It’s really hard to describe, but it was only probably a week later that I started to notice the nuances of flavors in vegetables and fruits again...Sugar really does overpower the taste buds...That first week was tough, because everything tasted like cardboard, but I eventually got back."

If your viewers can only take one thing away from the film, what would you want it to be?
"If you see a film like An Inconvenient Truth, about climate change, you think, Well, I can turn the lights off, I can buy a Prius, but what else can I do? It feels so much bigger than the individual. But the beautiful thing about what you eat is that you get to decide what goes in your mouth...You don’t have to wait for government guidelines or regulations in the food industry to change. You can actually empower yourself to start making better choices in what you eat. Look at a label and see. Read the grams — one teaspoon equals four grams." You can find out if That Sugar Film is playing near you here.

More from Diet & Nutrition

R29 Original Series