Recently I went to see this very successful Australian documentary with one of my health-enthusiast friends. I found it engaging, playful, eye-opening, well-made and thought-provoking. The film is directed by and stars Damon Gameau. Damon is an Australian director and actor. After the film, Damon himself was available for a Q&A session which was very interesting and exciting to a health nerd like myself. The film documents the effects of a high-sugar diet on a healthy body over 60 days. What’s really interesting and powerful about this experiment is that Damon eats only food perceived as ‘healthy’ to meet his daily intake of sugar. He eats foods such as low-fat yoghurt, cereals, sports drinks, condiments, muesli bars, juice and packaged meals which are full of hidden sugars. He easily manages to eat an average of 40 teaspoons of sugar a day, which is as much as the average Australian is eating. The World Health Organisation recommends that we aim to eat only 6 teaspoons or 25 grams of sugar a day. Despite drastically changing the types of food he eats over 60 days, Damon carefully kept track of the energy value of his diet and ensured he kept the same calorie intake (2300 calories per day) as he had been consuming with his normal healthy diet.
What this excess amount of sugar actually did to his body
After 60 days of eating a high-sugar diet, Damon had gained 8.5 kgs, increased his body-fat level by 7%, developed fatty liver disease (extraordinary in only 60 days), was on the verge of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease, and had put on 10 cm of visceral fat. Visceral fat is the fat which you can’t ‘pinch’ but is found around your internal organs. It is also the most dangerous as it is associated with heart disease. Damon was also effected mentally by becoming fuzzy-headed, anxious, depressed and irritable. Another effect he noticed from eating a diet much lower in protein and fat was that he never felt full and was constantly hungry. This is consistent with a lot of scientific evidence showing that a high-sugar diet results in increased hunger. Lastly, Damon noticed that his motivation to exercise had plummeted.
I was not surprised that his health was badly effected by eating predominately processed foods; however, I was surprised that he put on so much weight despite his calorie intake remaining the same as pre-experiment. I have always understood due to science (and my personal experience) that the first law of thermodynamics regarding energy transformations applies to the human metabolism. For weight maintenance, calories in (via food and drinks) must equal calories expended (through basal metabolism, activity and the thermal effect of food). I will be very curious to see more research over the years to possibly disprove the caloric theory.
Damon’s experience of quitting sugar and returning to his healthy lifestyle
After the 60 day experiment, Damon went back to his normal pre-experiment diet. He noticed various withdrawal symptoms from the sugar, including headaches, not sleeping well and strong cravings for a sugar hit. During the live Q&A time after the film, Damon was asked for some tips on getting through the quitting phase. He said what helped him with sugar cravings was eating plenty of good fats as they are very satiating to the body, and also eating something disgusting and/or strong tasting like a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar diluted in a glass of water, or some olives. Initially, he noticed food tasted bland and was not as enjoyable compared to the sugary processed foods his body was now used to. However, after about two months, his moods increased and his mind cleared. Due to replacing the sugar with healthy fats such as avocado and coconut oil, his appetite control mechanisms increased and his body regained the ability to feel full and satisfied again. An interesting discovery was that within 8 weeks of removing sugar from his diet, Damon’s health returned to normal. His blood tests, which had previously shown his to be at risk for heart disease and diabetes, returned to normal. That should be very motivating to people who currently eat a lot of sugar. The damage is not irreversible, and improving your health is as simple as changing your diet.
New things I learnt
Firstly, I learnt a new term: ‘free sugar’. Previously, I referred to the ‘bad’ sugars that I aim to mostly avoid as ‘refined sugars’. The problem with classing sugars as either refined or unrefined is that some unrefined sugars (such as honey, maple syrup and agave syrup) are still very high in added sugar and should also be limited.
‘Free sugars’ are those that are removed from their original source and added to foods.
They are usually added as a sweetener or a preservative to increase the shelf-life of the food. An example of ‘free sugars’ are those found in fruit juice. Juice is very high in fructose and very quickly absorbed into the body because the fructose has been separated from the rest of the fruit. Fructose in its original form (fruit) is well-metabolised by our bodies. For more about why I believe fruit juice should not be an ‘all the time food’, read my post here. Free sugars are absorbed into our blood stream rapidly and get direct access to the liver where they are immediately turned into fat. I recommend you try to avoid ‘free sugars’, but keep eating natural sugars found in their original form; in fruits, vegetables and dairy items.
Secondly, I learnt that, in the food industry, food companies deliberately put just the right amount of sugar in food to make it taste palatable and be addictive. This amount is referred to as the ‘bliss point’. Thirdly, I learnt that the global sugar industry is worth fifty billion dollars! With that much money at stake, people with invested interest will naturally go to great lengths to hide the evidence that sugar is bad for you. There have been times when the sugar industry has paid for reports to prove that sugar is not linked to chronic disease. An investigator explained that the sugar industry is doing all the same things the tobacco industry did to hide the truth about their products.
In my opinion, this documentary has achieved what it set out to do: raise people’s awareness of how much sugar is actually in their food. One of the key messages this film promotes is that you don’t have to count calories to be a healthy weight, you just have to eat real food. All the foods Damon ate to reach his 40 teaspoons of sugar a day were processed foods. Simply switching foods that come in packages for foods found around the perimeter of the supermarket will mean you are avoiding a high-sugar diet. Damon also has a blog at www.thatsugarfilm.com. I found his posts very interesting and easy to read and understand. If you would like to learn more about sugar and its effects on the body, this is a great resource. There were also some great sugar-free recipes which I am personally looking forward to trying.