Doc­u­men­tary film­maker be­comes hu­man ‘ lab rat’ to find truth about sugar

Maker of ‘ That Sugar Film’ in­gests hid­den sug­ars


With some peo­ple call­ing sugar toxic and oth­ers in­sist­ing it’s es­sen­tial for energy, film­maker Damon Gameau de­cided it was time to un­pack the am­bi­gu­ity around the sweet sub­stance.

He con­ducted an experiment - us­ing him­self as the guinea pig - to doc­u­ment the ef­fects of a high-sugar diet on a healthy body. He would eat 40 tea­spoons of sugar a day, the equiv­a­lent of just above the daily teenage av­er­age in Aus­tralia, and show his progress in “That Sugar Film.” The twist? The sug­ars had to be hid­den in com­monly per­ceived “healthy” foods and drinks - like gra­nola bars, juice, low-fat yogurt, ce­real, smooth­ies and sports drinks. The sugar had to con­sist of su­crose and fruc­tose, whether “added” or nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring.

He had to avoid pop, junk food, ice cream and candy. He had to choose low-fat foods and main­tain his same level of ex­er­cise.

With his first break­fast of ce­real, juice and yogurt, Gameau found he was nearly half­way to his daily to­tal with about 20 tea­spoons of added sugar. (One tea­spoon of sugar is about four grams.)

Dur­ing the two-month experiment, Gameau was su­per­vised by med­i­cal and nutri­tion ex­perts. He gained 15 pounds and packed on more than four inches around his belly. Within three weeks he’d de­vel­oped fatty liver dis­ease. He suf­fered from mood swings, lack of energy and skin break­outs. By the end, he had early Type 2 di­a­betes and heart dis­ease risks.

This all came from eat­ing much less fat and fewer calo­ries than be­fore he started.

“I was eat­ing a lot of food that par­ents might feed their kids,” said Gameau, not­ing many of the prod­ucts are clev­erly mar­keted with bright colours and slo­gans de­not­ing health.

“But as we ex­plore in the film, they of­ten have more sugar in them than their health­ier al­ter­na­tives.”

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion rec­om­mends lim­it­ing daily in­take of added sug­ars to less than 10 per cent of to­tal energy in­take. A fur­ther re­duc­tion to be­low five per cent or roughly 25 grams (six tea­spoons) per day would pro­vide ad­di­tional health ben­e­fits, the WHO says.

“We’re not try­ing to de­mo­nize it and say don’t ever have sugar again. Just be aware of where it’s ac­tu­ally hid­ing be­cause then you can make choices,” said Gameau.

While mak­ing the film, he be­came aware of the lev­els of non­al­co­holic liver dis­ease, di­a­betes and obe­sity in kids.

“The more I learned and un­der­stood the topic the more I thought you re­ally have to make sure kids see this. That’s why I re­ally played with the tone and made it ir­rev­er­ent and fun and ac­ces­si­ble to fam­i­lies.”

Gameau put what he couldn’t in­clude in the film in “That Sugar Book,” a com­pan­ion vol­ume that in­cludes tips, ad­vice and recipes.

Gameau, 39, has starred in sev­eral fea­ture films, with his per­for­mance in Robert Con­nolly’s “Bal­ibo” earn­ing him an Aus­tralian Film In­sti­tute nom­i­na­tion for best sup­port­ing ac­tor. He also ap­peared in the TV se­ries “How I Met Your Mother.”

“I’ve al­ways had a de­sire for do­ing some­thing like this, tell my own story. You spend so long telling other peo­ple’s sto­ries and you think you’re such a vi­tal cog in the wheel, but when you make a film you re­al­ize ac­tors are im­por­tant, but there are so many things that go on,” Gameau said.

“I en­joy act­ing, but I don’t have the same level of pas­sion for it that I do for film­mak­ing now.”

The good news for Gameau is that his health and weight went back to nor­mal once he re­turned to his pre-experiment diet.

“I think there’s a ter­rific mes­sage in there, how re­liant as a so­ci­ety we are on med­i­ca­tions and big pharma, that a lot of this stuff ob­vi­ously can be pre­vented by eat­ing the right foods.

“For many peo­ple who aren’t too far down the road you can get in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive re­sults just from chang­ing the way you eat.”

The film opens Fri­day in Toronto, and in Cal­gary and Win­nipeg on July 17, with wider re­lease later.


Film­maker Damon Gameau is shown in a still from the film ‘ That Sugar Film.’

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