This documentary film, just released, covers 60 days in the life of actor Damon Gameau, who goes on a diet that includes 40 teaspoons (tsp) of sugar, which he suggests is the national average consumption in Australia. He doesn’t do this by drinking sugar-rich drinks or indulging in puddings and desserts; rather he chooses everyday foods that are perceived to be healthy, like cereals, dried fruit, honey, flavoured yogurts, cereal bars, smoothies, fruit juice, frozen yogurt, ready meals and pasta sauce.
He tries to estimate the amount of sugar in these foods that comes from lactose (milk sugar), so appears to be attempting to make the 40tsp up with what we today call “free sugars” (sugar added to food, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices). He says he took in the same number of calories as before and continued to exercise everyday.
His blood test results at the end of 60 days show that he has had adverse effects on his liver function and he gained weight as well as inches round his waist. He claims that just eating the national average amount of sugar from seemingly healthy foods can make you develop a fatty liver, diabetes, heart disease, affect your brain function, your eyes, skin, mood and more.
My 6 take-outs
1. This documentary film was engaging and effective. It is important to be careful about the amount of sugar we eat, to watch our calories and to understand what’s in our food. Too much sugar is bad for us and it’s sensible to keep sugar intake in moderation. There was a clever and visually powerful depiction of sugar in foods, and it does make you think. And it’s good to be mindful of hidden sugars as we may be eating lots of sugar without realising it.
2. However, despite bombarding me with facts and figures, this was just one man’s experiment with no rigorous methodology. Robust reports based on thousands of peer-reviewed references from bodies such as the World Health Organisation and the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition presented evidence linking high sugar to dental caries and there was no good evidence that sugar was implicated in cancer, heart disease or diabetes, though there was an association with weight gain and Type 2 diabetes when high intakes of sugar sweetened beverages were consumed.
One of the experts interviewed in the film was spot on: Dr John Sievenpiper clearly says that this is anecdotal – just one man’s experience that has not been subjected to any scientific scrutiny. He added that if Damon had eaten a large amount of any food, such as a potato crisp diet, he would probably also see effects on his body after 60 days.
3. The film depicted a case study of an Aboriginal community who influenced foods sold by the local store and how they improved dietary habits by obtaining funding and using community elders as a force for change. Although just a small community and an isolated case, this was a good example of how a multi-pronged approach that includes government, the food industry, caterers and retailers, as well as the public, is needed to make a positive shift in dietary behaviour.
4. 40tsp of sugar works out to 160g, which equates to 640kcal, which is a whopping 32% of daily calories for an average woman! The National Diet and Nutrition Survey suggests that adults in the UK are currently taking in about 12% of our food energy (calories) as sugars, so this 32% energy from sugars is totally unrepresentative of the UK diet.
5. If 40tsp of sugar is indeed the national average in Australia, this would have included lactose from dairy foods and fructose from fruit sources – Damon’s analysis appears to have excluded lactose, so he was possibly having much more than this figure. And how does he know how much lactose is in a yogurt? Even a food label doesn’t tell you that.
6. My biggest worry is that this film targets foods that are important sources of micronutrients: yogurt provides calcium and phosphorus, fortified breakfast cereals typically include B vitamins and iron, smoothies and juices provide valuable vitamin C and potassium, and tomato-based pasta sauce gives you vitamin C, potassium and the anti-oxidant lycopene.
These are not the foods we should be singling out to reduce sugar, though portion size and how often you eat them is important. For example, drinking 150ml of fruit juice with a meal, or having a whole grain breakfast cereal that contains small amounts of sugar, are sensible ways to keep an eye on sugar whilst still enjoying food.
In conclusion, I feel this film was an attempt to attack politicians and the food industry, but what it has the ability to do is to cause even more public confusion. It is not based on randomised controlled clinical trials or systematic reviews – the robust type of evidence we need before creating nutrition guidelines – and the amount of sugar consumed was not representative of current UK sugar intakes. Having said that, the message that we need to avoid sugar-rich foods is a good one. Reading labels and comparing brands also helps you to be aware of hidden sugars.
I work with the food industry to help them create healthier versions of their products and to improve the accuracy of their nutrition communication. These are my own views and are not based on opinion from any of my clients.