It’s not every day that a film can inspire you to raid your kids’ sugar stash and gleefully jettison it into the trash. But “That Sugar Film,” even with its contrived cinematic hijinks, does exactly that. In my experience, no other film, book or article has been as compellingly persuasive about sugar’s insidious effect on one’s health. Or maybe just watching my kids burgeoning addiction to sugar over the years made me a particularly captivated audience.
In “That Sugar Film,” Damon Gameau, an Australian actor-director who has not eaten refined sugars for years, decides to consume 40 teaspoons of sugar a day, the average Aussie’s intake. The twist? Gameau limits himself to consuming hidden sugars—the sugars found in so-called healthy foods, such as baked beans, cereal, yogurt, juice and sport drinks. He eats the same amount of calories he did before, too—and still gains weight, along with a host of other disturbing medical symptoms.
Similar to “Supersize Me,” in which Morgan Spurlock ingests only McDonald’s food for a month and keeps a medical team handy to document the results, Gameau’s team records in minute detail the changes to his health. What he learns along the way about the consequences of a high-sugar diet is no less than horrifying. Within three weeks, he starts to develop fatty liver disease, and by the end incurs early type 2 diabetes and increased heart-disease risks. Not to mention a potbelly—he packs on 15 pounds around his waist—even though he exercised the same amount as before. He also suffers from moodiness, sugar cravings and crashes, a decreased attention span and hyperactivity followed by lethargy.
Gameau’s main point is that sugar creep is everywhere. Not only is sugar now found in 80 percent of the food we eat, it’s found in increasingly high ratios. Here are a few other significant tidbits from the film.
A calorie is not just a calorie
Gameau suggests that calories from sugar cause more visceral fat, the deep belly fat closely linked to heart disease and diabetes, than subcutaneous fat—the fat’s that just below the skin. Several studies show that the type of sugar you ingest matters and that fructose, rather than glucose, increases visceral fat. To illustrate just how much sugar is in certain foods, Gameau measures the sugar equivalent out in teaspoons alongside the product in questions, such as chicken teriyaki sauce. Sometimes Gameau opts to simply consumer the pure sugar equivalent of what’s in the food. So he sprinkles six teaspoons of sugar on top of his chicken—which is surprisingly painful to watch him ingest.
Sugar belly is a real thing: it’s the body fat that is stored within the abdominal cavity and is therefore stored around a number of important internal organs, such as the liver, pancreas and intestines. It can have a dangerous affect on how our hormones function.
All sugar is guilty
Most of the sugar we encounter is a combination of glucose and fructose (sucrose is an even 50-50 split between the two, while high fructose corn syrup comes in either 55%-45% fructose-glucose or 42%-58% pairings). It’s difficult to find anything that’s mostly glucose, which means our sweeteners are setting us up for weight gain, and more insidiously, metabolic changes that can make us more prone to heart disease and diabetes. Whether you consume maple syrup (48.5% fructose and 51.5% glucose) or high fructose corn syrup or fruit juice concentrates, you are still consuming fructose. Fructose is sweeter than glucose, which accounts for its ubiquity.
Most processed foods have carefully calculated bliss points: amount of an ingredient such as salt, sugar or fat, which optimizes palatability. The amounts are shockingly high. The Cheesecake Factory Black-out Cake has 38 teaspoons of added sugar per serving, Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino (venti) has 18.5 added teaspoons, and a Jamba Juice Banana Berry (power size) has 33.5 added teaspoons. For context, most women should get no more than 100 calories (3 teaspoons) a day from added sugars. Most men should get no more than 150 calories (4.5 teaspoons).
Sugar as hormone disruptor
Originally, people got their sugar in small amounts from the fructose in fruit. Over time, our brains became wired to be addicted to fructose. We now tend to gorge on sugar and HFCS, and it is the subsequent abnormal spikes in insulin that are causing trouble. The extra fructose and glucose effectively act like endocrine disrupters, sending our hormones haywire. Even large quantities of fresh-pressed juice can be harmful in large quantities, as there is no fiber to provide a feeling of bulk and fullness and automatic deterrent against over consumption.
The upshot of sugar in everything means that our palates have become habituated to sugar—and our palate keeps seeking it out. One of the most edifying scenes from the film is the bit about a phenomenon dubbed “Mountain Dew mouth,” after Appalachia’s favorite drink and the resulting high incidence of rotted teeth. One teenager in the movie had to have all his teeth pulled, but even that was not enough of a deterrent for him to restrain his 5 or 6 soda a day consumption.
Watching all the sugar being exposed, calculated, eaten, drunk and transformed into body bloat, I realized what a privilege it is to choose to not eat sweet food. Call it bitter privilege. It’s enough to make me have urgent cravings for a big salad, dressed with oil and vinegar. It doesn’t mean I won’t consume any sugar — dark chocolate has its place — but I will consume sugar more responsibly. One spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down, but too many spoonfuls and you will soon need medical intervention.