Ten years ago, Morgan Spurlock existed solely on food from McDonald’s for a month. He filmed his weight changes in the groundbreaking documentary Super Size Me. Early in 2015, Australian actor and filmmaker Damon Gameau’s That Sugar Film will hit cinemas, documenting a similar experiment with sugar.
In the film, Gameau exists on “healthy” low-fat food with a high sugar content for 60 days. Within three weeks, the previously healthy actor began feeling terrible all the time, and noticed significant changes to his mood. Worse still – he discovered he had the beginnings of fatty liver disease.
Now more than ever, sugar is being blamed for a vast array of society’s health problems, ranging from obesity and diabetes to dementia and depression. But are the health experts right? Is sugar, and our overconsumption of it, making us sick?
According to the Australian Diabetes Council, Australians, on average, consume more than 20 teaspoons of sugar every day, or 53 kilograms of sugar per year. The Australian Heart Foundation recommends no more than nine teaspoons per day, so we’re well over the recommended levels.
As well as contributing to the current obesity crisis (around 60 per cent of Australian adults are overweight or obese), our overall health is suffering, too. More than one million Australians have type 2 diabetes, fuelled by overeating and a lack of exercise.
Obesity rates in Australia and New Zealand have soared by more than 80 per cent in the past 33 years, the biggest increase in a survey of almost 200 countries. And sugar is being blamed: it’s estimated that drinking just one can of soft drink a day (which contains, on average, 17 teaspoons of sugar) can result in a 6.75 kilogram weight gain over one year.
During his experiment, Gameau put on 10cm of visceral fat around his waist and was informed that he was on the fast-track to obesity. He was also told his mental functioning was “unstable”.
Recent studies show sugar may also be causing us to age prematurely. According to Professor Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar, Obesity and Disease, the harmful effects of sugar are similar to those of tobacco. “When foods contain fructose, they brown better – bread for instance toasts better. But it means that our insides are browning too, so we’re ageing faster.”
According to Lustig, half the sugar we’re consuming today is in items we didn’t even know had sugar. “If you look at virtually every item in the store that has a food label, it has some form of sugar.”
New studies are reinforcing what many have suspected for years: that sugar may be an addictive substance. Dr Tracy Burrows, accredited practising dietitian and senior lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Newcastle, says while more research needs to be done, she believes “foods that contain sugar are addictive”.
“As you rarely eat sugar on its own, we looked at which foods are addictive, rather than an individual substance,” Burrows says of her research in the area. “We’re trying to establish if a food addiction is real, then profiling which foods are more addictive. It’s quite hard, as there’s sugar in lots of things, such as fruit. Even breastmilk has sugar in it. Research still needs to be done on individual ingredients.”
A recent French study, which concluded that sugar is more addictive than cocaine, gave lab rats the choice of water laced with sugar, or intravenous cocaine. The result? Ninety-four per cent of the rats chose the sweet treat over the cocaine. In addition to this preference, the sugar-dependent rats demonstrated typical symptoms of addiction, such as withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
“In drug or alcohol addictions, habits form because it connects with the reward centre in your brain and releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical,” says Burrows. “It’s this chemical, which has been recognised in studies of drug and alcohol addicts, that is why people are now comparing sugar cravings with those of hard drugs. It’s unlike other types of addiction – it’s controversial. Drug or alcohol addiction is a choice, whereas you need to eat food to survive. Food as an addiction is a very challenging concept for some people to accept.”
More to the story
Not everyone is convinced that sugar is the root of all evil. Research at the University of Edinburgh has found that it may be the action of eating, not necessarily the ingredients (such as high sugar or fatty foods), that becomes addictive.
Dr John Menzies, Research Fellow in the University of Edinburgh Centre for Integrative Physiology, says: “It’s easy to blame food for being overweight. Certain individuals do have an addictive-like relationship with particular foods and they can overeat despite knowing the risks to their health. However, we think this is a behaviour addiction, rather than a substance-based addiction.”
Professor Suzanne Dickson, from the University of Gothenburg, agrees. “There is very little evidence to support the idea that any ingredient, food item, additive or combination of ingredients has addictive properties.”
What is confusing to people is what type of sugar is doing the most harm. Many people have gone sugar-free, which means they’ve also cut out fruit.
But Charlene Grosse, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, advises we look at foods as a whole rather than targeting sugar alone. “The Australian dietary guidelines, which is based on the review of 55,000 studies, show the importance of fruit as part of a healthy diet. It significantly reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer.”
“Sugar is a simple carbohydrate made of two molecules, glucose and fructose,” explains Grosse. “The sugar attaches itself to the gut before it’s absorbed. We know that glucose mainly causes fat storage under the skin, and fructose deposits fat around organs, such as the liver. Liver fat interferes with the working of the liver and you end up with insulin resistance. If the liver doesn’t work correctly, the pancreas has to make extra insulin. It also causes hypertension, changes in the brain that might result in altered cognitive function and even dementia. It can increase cell proliferation, which can cause cancer and vascular smooth muscle proliferation, which can cause heart disease.”
A study at the University of Glasgow published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology journal, found “drinking fruit juice is potentially just as bad for you as drinking sugar-sweetened drinks because of its high sugar content”.
“Fruit juice and dried fruit are higher sources of fruit sugar,” agrees Grosse. “But four apples will not have the same effect on your blood sugar levels as a 600ml bottle of soft drink, even though they contain similar amounts of sugar,” says Grosse. “The slower rate of absorption of fruit reduces any surge in blood sugar, not to mention we would struggle to eat four apples but can easily drink sugar in a low-nutrient fluid. Additionally, fruit is a good source of fibre, which helps to slow the rate at which the sugar is absorbed.”
A recent Victorian Health Monitor Survey found that 43 per cent of adults reported consuming soft drinks regularly, and 47 per cent drank fruit juices and fruit drinks regularly, with four per cent downing a sports drink for energy.
If you do decide to quit sugar, it’s important to read the ingredients of packaged food, or begin making as many meals as you can from scratch.
“The easiest way to eliminate sugar from your diet is to eat fresh, wholesome foods, which are the closest to their natural state,” says Grosse. “Remember the saying: if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, then you shouldn’t be eating it.”
That sugar film
For That Sugar Film, actor and filmmaker Damon Gameau consumed the equivalent of 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for 60 days and tracked the effects on his body.
Forty teaspoons sounds like a lot, but statistics show teenagers worldwide are consuming nearly that every day.
The results speak for themselves: halfway through the experiment Gameau was lethargic and had the beginnings of fatty liver disease.
“All the sugars I was eating were found in perceived healthy foods, so low-fat yoghurt and muesli bars and cereals and fruit juices, sports drinks … these kinds of things that often parents would give their kids thinking they’re doing the right thing,” he says.
That Sugar Film is in cinemas from March 2015, thatsugarfilm.com