If you’re someone who likes to buy up big at the candy bar before seeing a film, then a word of warning about That Sugar Film: this story of one man’s 60-day sugar binge is guaranteed to leave your choc top melted in your hand and your box of Maltesers left unopened.
Sugar is today’s number one dietary demon, and not without reason. While nutrition scientists may debate the harms – or not – of saturated fat, sugar is one food we can all unite over. And happily acknowledge we eat too much of the stuff.
So do we need another public self-experiment to show that eating too much sugar and highly processed foods isn’t so good for us? Surely the classic food-bingeing adventures of Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me – the man who lived off super-sized McDonald’s meals for 30 days (and to the surprise of no one gained 11 kg) told us all we really need to know?
Or what about the man who added 10 cans of Coca Cola to his normal diet for 30 days and, shock horror, gained weight?
That Sugar Film: the next installment
In this latest instalment of food self-experimentation, Australian actor Damon Gameau set out to eat food containing the equivalent of 40 teaspoons (about 160 grams) of sugar per day for 60 days. But there’s a twist: it could only come from foods people could perceive as being healthy. So that ruled out soft drinks, confectionery and ice-cream. Instead the added sugar came from lots of fruit juice, sports drinks, smoothies, low-fat yoghurt’s, muesli bars, and sugary breakfast cereals.
Throughout his journey, he documented the effect that switching from a healthy diet to a high-sugar diet had on his weight, mood and health.
The white stuff
Why 40 teaspoons of sugar a day? Well, because that’s the amount of sugar the average Australian between the ages of 19 and 30 eats every day. But the problem with using this estimate is that it includes all forms of sugar, including what’s found naturally in fruit, fruit products and milk.
While using 40 teaspoons of white sugar paints a sensational picture, it’s not an entirely correct one. The actual amount of added sugar we eat is well short of 160 grams; it’s more like 66 grams or about 16 teaspoons a day for the average adult.
For dramatic effect, the 60-day high-sugar experiment works well for entertainment to show how taking things to extremes can be harmful.
Damon claimed that his weight gain happened despite eating the same amount of food than before his high-sugar experiment. Yet only a very superficial attempt was made to estimate how much food was being eaten over the 60 days, making such a claim unreliable at best.
So, is there something insidious about sugar calories that can lead to greater weight gain? Not really. Sugar, including fructose, is not inherently fattening relative to other foods. Its effect on body weight is from the extra energy it adds to our diets, that’s all.
But there’s more to this. What can make sugar fattening is the context it’s normally eaten in. Sugar increases the energy density of food and makes it more palatable and desirable. This means people are likely to end up eating more of the foods with a lot of added sugar than is good for them.
The documentary also asks whether sugar is an inherently addictive substance. If you’re a rat, then sugar would most certainly be your drug of choice. But in humans the science is, at best, hazy. The thing to remember is that eating is addictive – just try going a day without food.
Make your own happy ending
What That Sugar Film does well is shine a light on just how much sugar has pervaded our food supply. It claims that if foods containing significant amounts of added sugar were removed from supermarket shelves, you would only need about 20% of the current shelf space to fit what remains. A casual glance at the food labels in a typical supermarket isle shows this estimate is probably not far from the truth.
The film is timely in light of recent draft guideline recommendations by the World Health Organization to eat no more than 12 teaspoons (50 grams) of sugar per day and to aim for even half of that. Such recommendations that naturally are not pleasing to the food industry.
After the short-term sugar-shock from watching this film has worn off, what changes could a person make if they wanted to eat less sugar and eat better overall? My tip is to start looking more closely at food labels and ingredients lists. With the more processed and convenient a food is, the more likely it will have extra sugar in it.
Simpler yet, ditch label reading altogether and choose foods as close to their natural state as possible. Many of these food don’t require a label, or have a very short ingredient list. This is after all what the heart of the Australia Dietary Guidelines recommend.
You don’t see many of the foods eaten in That Sugar Film appearing in this pictorial guide for the Guidelines. It just may not make for such an exciting movie.