Would you be willing to put your body through the ringer and risk your own health for the sake of medical inquiry? Australian actor/director Damon Gameau did just that to discover firsthand how a high sugar diet affects a healthy body. He chronicled his experiment of eating 40 teaspoons of added sugar daily for 60 days in his soon-to-be-released documentary That Sugar Film.
With his first baby on the way, Gameau was inspired to seek out the truth amidst the constant stream of conflicting claims of sugar’s effects on the body. “Every report that came out was contradictory to the last,” he said in an interview on Wednesday.
Gameau was baffled by the mixed messages and knew countless others reading the same reports had to be as well. To clear up the confusion surrounding the role of sugar in the diet, he embarked on an experiment of consuming sugar that did not come from natural sources, such as fruits and dairy. However, he didn’t eat a typical junk food diet of ice cream and cookies.
“If I just ate chocolate, you’d say of course you’re going to get sick,” he said. “The point of the film is to show how much sugar is actually hidden in the perceived healthy foods.” Fat-free vanilla yogurt may have as much as 21 grams, or 5 teaspoons, of sugar, Whether sugar is coming from soda or from low-fat yogurt, cereal and fruit juice concentrate, Gameau wanted to show that overconsumption of it has the same negative affect on health.
Similar to Morgan Spurlock’s fast food experiment documented in Supersize Me, Gameau had a team of doctors, nutritionists and scientists monitoring his blood levels and other health markers. Over the course of two months, he gained a significant amount of weight and developed fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes.
“All the symptoms I developed in a really quick time are the most common illnesses for overweight or obese,” he said. “I gained 19 pounds and 4 inches of visceral fat around the belly.”
However the most shocking discovery for both his doctors and Gameau was that he developed nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in just 15 days on the diet. This condition, where fat makes up more than 5 to 10 percent of the liver organ can result in pain, inflammation and scarring in the liver. Fatty liver disease is quite common in overweight or obese individuals and is part of the spectrum of conditions that make up metabolic syndrome, which also includes heightened blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, in addition to diabetes. Unchecked, excess fat in the liver can lead to scar tissue forming, which can progressively block the flow of blood though the liver and result in organ failure.
“By the end of the 60 days, I was on the verge of cirrhosis, where the liver really hardens,” Gameau said. While many of us know that alcohol abuse over time can lead to cirrhosis, fatty liver disease is also among the most common causes of cirrhosis.
Fortunately, these conditions cleared up for Gameau after ending the experiment. “As soon as I stopped the [high sugar] diet, my health improved,” he said. Within 60 days, Gameau was physically and emotionally back to normal. “It just goes to show that if you start off on eating the right food, you can eliminate the need for medications.”
Another surprising affect of a high sugar diet on Gameau was its affect on his emotional health. “When sugar is your main source of energy, hormones clear up your blood sugar really quickly,” he said. “So the body panics over when it’s going to get its next source of energy, which makes you feel irritable and anxious.”
A diet high in sugar strongly affects stability of moods and the ability to concentrate. Gameau said this of particular concern when it comes to children. “Kids might be having what parents perceive as healthy breakfasts, but they’re really full of sugar,” he said. Looking at how to lower carbohydrates and increase full fats and protein in the diet, he suggests, gives children a better chance of learning.
While the United States is one of the most obese countries, studies suggest that American teenagers are not the biggest consumers of sugar. Gameau said that Canadian teenagers consume about 42 grams of added sugars daily, while Australians eat 37 grams and Americans eat 31 grams. In contrast, the World Health Organization recommends that adults eat no more than roughly 6 teaspoons (or 25 grams) of sugar, or 5 percent of their total caloric intake, per day for the most health benefits.
When we consume a lot of sugar, most of the fructose metabolized by the liver gets turned into fat before being secreted into the blood. Excess fructose is addictive to the brain and is a major cause of weight gain; it can lead to leptin resistance, decreasing the ability of the brain to sense when the body is full, and to insulin resistance, affecting the energy use and metabolism of the body.
“The fact that my calorie intake [during the experiment] didn’t change, yet I still put on all this weight and got metabolically sick was surprising,” Gameau said. “Calories are equal [when different foods are] on the plate, but as soon as they enter body, they affect all these hormones and gut bacteria in different ways.”
The source of those calories—the ratio of carbohydrates, proteins and fats—largely determines how what you eat will affect your health. Gameau’s normal diet predominately consists of fresh vegetables and fruits, with a lot of eggs for protein. “We keep meat to a minimum. We do eat it occasionally, but we’re certainly aware of how the excessive meat consumption has an affect on the planet,” he said. “Any refined carb, I keep to a minimum. We [as a society] are having far too much bread. Some is fine, but we’re just having way too much.”
Gemeau’s daughter is growing up to embrace natural flavors, enjoying the sweetness of a banana. “We teach our daughter that a treat is something you have every now and then. We don’t want to demonize sugar; a treat should be a treat. But the problem is [as a society] we’re having four or five treats every day.”
The purpose of That Sugar Film is not to point the finger of blame at anybody or any single food. He hopes that the informative and entertaining documentary—with guest cameos from stars like Stephen Fry and music from bands like Florence and the Machine, alongside interviews with experts like Gary Taubes—will encourage people to pay attention to food labels, to start keeping tabs on how much sugar they consume throughout the day and to learn healthier ways of eating. Gemeau recognizes all these things take some effort and have a learning curve. To help, he offers a free e-book companion to That Sugar Film, which is full of healthy recipes.
The film will be released in the U.S. on July 31 in theaters, on iTunes and on demand. For a full list of theatres across the country, click here.