40 spoons of sugar a day: the story behind That Sugar Film

01 September 2015 | Cancer prevention

Damon Gamaeu Damon Gameau is director and star of That Sugar Film, in which he ate a ‘healthy’, low-fat diet for 60 days - to highlight the health impact of eating sugar hidden in foods you don't expect. The film is being screened around the world.  

In the warm Australian summer of 2008, I was pretending to enjoy life as an early 30s single male. My love of self had certainly been applied well to clothing choices and facial grooming but had yet to influence my nutrition. I told myself I enjoyed smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and pouring two cans of Vanilla Coke into my body.

But as often happens with a man, he is wrenched from the clutches of self-destruction just in the nick of time by a nurturing and emotionally intelligent woman. I can happily report that this happened to me.

I knew the moment I laid eyes on that radiant and effervescent creature that I was done, but that I had some serious work to do; Vanilla Cokes and cigarettes were not going to penetrate the healthy force field that surrounded her. I saw all of my current patterns of behaviour combust in front of me, like putting a lighter to a ball of candy floss.

The other thing that happens with a man, is that when he is trying to impress a woman, he pretends to be interested in a whole range of things that he has actually never even heard of before. For me that was healthy eating. I nodded in anticipation at her kale and cucumber smoothies, feigned excitement at avocado on chia seed bread and inhaled mountains of organic vegetables and weird sounding naturopathic potions. As a result, and without thinking much about it, I soon went from consuming around 30 teaspoons of added sugar a day to virtually none, apart from the odd square of fancy-sounding artisanal dark chocolate.

That Sugar Film

Two months into this rigorous ‘wooing’ process, I began to notice the changes. People commented on my improved skin and eye brightness, I noticed that I had lost a few layers of my hibernation suit and the biggest surprise was the affect on my mental state. I felt calmer and more balanced and present throughout the day.

Jump cut to three years later, and my girlfriend and I had bonded so well that not only had we purchased our first couch from IKEA, but we didn’t even argue when assembling it (love’s true test). I had also directed my first short film, won a large competition in Australia with it, and had been approached by a production company to make a first feature film.

Film about impact of sugar on my body

At the time, there was a lot of press starting to emerge about sugar, but the camps were very divided. Some used words like ‘toxic’ and ‘poisonous’ while others cried ‘essential for energy’. With talk of babies now frequenting our conversations, no doubt inspired by the hand-holding strolls through the IKEA labyrinth, I thought the only way to find out the truth about sugar was to do an experiment on my own body and document the results. I assembled a team of doctors, scientists and nutritionists - all far more intelligent than myself - and went about consuming 40 teaspoons of sugar a day; which sadly is what many Australians between the age of 19 and 30 are doing (this includes fruit juices, concentrates and other sweeteners like honey and maple syrup).

Sugar is ‘hidden’ in many foods

But there needed to be something to grab the audience's attention. That hook came in aisle five of my local supermarket when I decided to properly read some labels and discovered that BBQ sauce, hoisin sauce and sweet chilli sauce all had more sugar in them per serve than chocolate sauce. What if I could eat my 40 teaspoons of sugar a day by only consuming products that many people would perceive to be ‘healthy' or at least would have no idea about the amount of sugar that lurks within them? This became the key part of the narrative and the rules were set. For 60 days I would maintain the same level of exercise that I already did and I would eat no chocolate, ice cream, soft drink or confectionery. The 40 teaspoons a day would be ‘hidden sugars’ found in foods like low fat yoghurt, cereals, muesli bars, juices, sports drinks and assorted condiments. None of the team monitoring me really knew what to expect. As a result, the film was very low budget in the first few weeks. There was a real chance that all this sugar-eating lunacy might amount to nothing.

Fatty liver disease in just 18 days

It's fair to say there was a spike in interest when I put on three kilograms in just 12 days. But the real alarm sounded when I had developed fatty liver disease after just 18 days. I remember calling the film’s producer from the blood clinic and telling him my results. All I heard was a delighted squeal from the other end and the words “Brilliant! Now we have a movie!" Compassion is not high on the resume of most producers. These results elevated the project to a new level, as all the conjecture in the media was around the fact that one half of sugar, fructose, is unique in that it metabolises by turning to fat in our liver (about one billion people worldwide have non alcoholic fatty liver disease). This is what had happened to me in under three weeks. By the end of the experiment I had put on 8.5 kilograms, developed pre type 2 diabetes and heart disease risks, had an extra 10 centimetres of the dangerous visceral fat around my belly and noticed an enormous impact on my moods and cognitive functions (a topic that is increasingly being looked at in academic circles).

Food industry

I also got a sneak peek under the veil of the food and sugar industry matrix. I learnt how we all have a ‘bliss point’ for sugar, which is the optimal amount of sweetness in a food that the companies spend millions striving for. I learnt about the manipulation of science that goes on to protect the enormous profits from sugar. I saw the horrible impact that sugar is having on our Australian indigenous culture and I now understand that sugar lights up the same reward areas in our brain as nicotine, cocaine and sex. We only have to see an image of it to trigger these responses.

Film & book to inform school curriculum

The sugar film and book have both been out in Australia for three months now and the response has been overwhelming. We recently became the highest-grossing Australian documentary of all time and the cinemas have been full of children. This has been the most heart-warming aspect and we have been able to develop a full curriculum study guide based on the film and the book that we are currently rolling out into schools.

Weight & cancer

Educating people about the impact of sugar is important as World Cancer Research Fund International’s analysis of worldwide research shows strong evidence that being overweight or obese increases the risk of 10 cancers  – and is why the organisation has produced a policy brief to help governments curb global sugar consumption.

Creating awareness among people who need it the most

Our intention was always to make the film fun and accessible so the whole family could enjoy it. It is full of animations and special FX and cameos from the likes of Stephen Fry, so it can be seen by those people that would not normally watch a food documentary.

And that’s the whole point; I think the residents of many affluent suburbs around the world are already aware of the sugar message. Our goal was to penetrate what I like to call the ‘Quinoa Curtain’ and get the message to the people that actually need it the most. We are thrilled to see how open people have been to the message and are equally excited to now be able to share it with the rest of the world.

The message of the film? Eat Real Food.

View the trailer of That Sugar Film, which is now available on DVD and on iTunes. A Parliamentary screening of the film – with the Shadow Minister for Public Health, Luciana Berger - will take place in the UK on 7 September; followed by a screening for the Royal College of Medicine in late October.

View World Cancer Research Fund International's 1 minute video featuring all 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations. For the latest news from the organisation, please follow twitter.com/wcrfint

Damon Gameau | 01 September 2015