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.
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 every day for 60 days. But there’s a twist: it could only come from foods people may think of as healthy.
Sugar, sugar everywhere
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.
Gameau documents the adverse effect switching from a healthy diet to a high-sugar diet had on his weight, mood and health. He claims he gained weight despite eating the same amount of food he ate before his high-sugar experiment, but provides only a very superficial attempt to estimate how much it was. That raises questions about the reliability of the claim.
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 the 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 draft guideline recommendations by the World Health Organisation to eat no more than 12 teaspoons (50 grams) of sugar a day and to aim for about half of that.
After the short-term sugar-shock from watching this film has worn off, what changes could someone make to eat less sugar and eat better overall? My tip is to start looking more closely at food labels and ingredient lists. The more processed and convenient a food is, the more likely it will have added sugar in it.
Easier still, ditch label reading and choose foods as close to their natural state as possible. Many of these don’t require a label at all, or have a very short ingredient list. That’s also exactly what the Australia Dietary Guidelines recommend.
That Sugar Film is touring cinemas around Australia in March.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
About the author: Tim Crowe is Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University.