That sugar debate!

For two months, Australian actor and director Damon Gameau swapped junk foods – like candy and soft drinks – for ‘health foods’, while continuing his usual calorie input and amount of physical activity. This should have led to an improvement in his overall health… right?

Actually, it did the complete opposite, he gained 8.5kg, his body fat rose by 7%, his waistline increased by 10cm and his vital organs were nearly damaged forever. By becoming the subject of his own experiment to learn about how sugar impacts on the body, Damon discovered the hard way just how unhealthy some ‘health’ foods can be.

The experiment

undefinedFor his documentary, ‘That Sugar Film’, Gameau consumed 40 teaspoons of sugar, every day, for two months. But there was a catch – this sugar had to come from ‘healthy’ foods:

Even after quitting junk food, Gameau learnt that sugar was in nearly everything he ate – even in ‘healthy’ foods like low-fat yoghurt, smoothies, dried fruit, muesli bars, and chicken salad wraps.

"I couldn't eat junk food. The sugar had to be found in perceived healthy foods"

— Australian actor and director Damon Gameau

What happened?

Gameau claimed that the more sugar he consumed, the more sugar he craved. He also developed an intense hunger like he’d never had before.

“On the first day, I had such enormous energy highs and lows that I passed out in a shopping centre. By that evening I was throwing up.

Throughout the first month, Gameau piled on five kilograms and had symptoms of fatty liver disease. He lost motivation, became tired, developed pimples, suffered from mood swings, and had food cravings.  These feelings snowballed as time went on ­– he became bloated, had headaches and his teeth became yellowed.

The feedback from health professionals was as bad as his experiences.

“I felt so physically and mentally dreadful, my doctors pulled me aside. ‘You’re done,’ one said.”

By day 60, Gameau had increased his weight by 8.4 kilograms, put 10 centimetres on his waistline, was close to developing hardening of his liver (also called cirrhosis – something you can’t recover from) and had nearly reached the risk point for heart disease.

“To know that I’d damaged my health so quickly when I wasn’t even eating junk food was scary.”

Putting it in perspective

The scary thing is that Gameau’s sugary diet during his experiment was not that extreme when compared with the average New Zealander’s sugar intake. Kiwis’ have a sweet tooth. The 2008/09 NZ Adult Nutrition Survey reported that NZ men eat 120g (about 30 teaspoons) of total sugars each day, whilst NZ women eat 96g (about 24 teaspoons). The World Health Organisation advises no more than six teaspoons per day for adults.

Summary

"This journey has highlighted to me just how shaky the foundations of our food supply are, if what can happen to me in 60 days has occurred without any so-called 'treats' on top, then it is little wonder we are in such a sad and sickly state."

But the greatest surprise for Gameau was that when he stopped eating those foods, everything began returning to normal.

"Two months later, I lost most of the weight and my fatty liver disease had disappeared."

Gameau explained that he isn’t trying to make people take sugar out of their diets; he just wanted to raise awareness:

"My hunch is that sugar is affecting millions of people," he says. "I'd love to get to a point where people have an understanding of the amount they're having." 

What does this mean for me?

You don’t need to stop eating sugar completely. But it would be wise to reduce your intake of sugary foods and drinks – especially those that don’t offer much nutrition. 

“Most countries with a recommendation on sugar intake suggest that less than 10% daily energy intake come from sugar.” 

—World Health Organization

It’s important to realize that you can’t just reduce the sugar you put in your tea/coffee (your ‘added sugars’). You need to be aware of the ‘invisible sugar’ in processed foods; this is where the majority of those 30 daily teaspoons are hiding. 

Read the ingredients on the back of your food products before you buy – if the sugar content is high – try to find a snack with less sugar, or eat some fresh fruit or vegetables instead. 

Experts suggest snack bars with less than 10g of sugar per bar, and breakfast cereals with under 15g of sugar per 100g serving (for more information see the ‘Healthy Food Guide’below).  For longer and more specific guidelines about eating healthily and how to avoid eating too much sugar check out ‘Eating Healthily for Adults(below).

Watch the trailer for ‘That Sugar Film’ touring cinemas from March 2015

References

  1. The wrong white crystals: not salt but sugar as aetiological in hypertension and cardiometabolic disease BMJ Publishing Group Ltd & British Cardiovascular Society
  2. World Health Organization. "Food-based dietary guidelines in the WHO European Region." (2003)
  3. Sugar in health foods nearly killed me – Damon Gameaus on the hidden dangers in food Daily Telegraph Australia
  4. Sugar in ‘Health Foods’ almost killed me Body & Soul Australia
  5. Healthy Food Guide Healthy Food Media NZ, 2009
  6. Sugar Consumer NZ
  7. Is sugar fuelling obesity in NZ? Stuff.co.nz
  8. Why low fat isn’t always healthy Stuff.co.nz

Written by: Adam May