That Sugar Film

In spite of (or perhaps because of) my skepticism about “I Quit Sugar” and the whole anti-sugar movement, I was curious to watch That Sugar Film.

All in all, I found it to be a well put-together documentary presented by seemingly sensible and fairly intelligent (albeit lay) people.

Damon Gameau, a clean-eating (thanks to his girlfriend) hipster-cum-hippy decides to start consuming the sugar intake of the average Australian (apparently 40 tsp, or 160g per day). He undertakes to consume this sugar in the form of “non-junk” food- no fizzy drink, lollies, chocolate or ice-cream. In order to consume all this sugar he does eat a lot of food which I personally wouldn’t consider “healthy”, but your average Joe Blow probably would (low fat flavoured yoghurt, processed cereal, iced tea, muesli bars etc).

His “expert” panel, which he consults regularly, consists of David Gillespie, a lawyer who wrote “Sweet Poison” (hmmmm, conflict of interest maybe?), a nutritionist (fair enough), a pathologist (not entirely sure of his relevance except to recount Damon’s blood test results- he fizzles out toward the end anyway, as David Gillespie evidently earns himself a science, possibly even a medical degree over the course of the two month experiment) and an actual doctor whose exact role I was unsure of, I think they were too. Gary Taubes (author of “Why we get fat” and somewhat fanatical “investigative journalist”), is introduced early on and is consulted more and more frequently as the film goes on. Not an endocrinologist or a biochemist in sight.

Basically, the film does a good job of telling us sugar is bad for us and that it’s everywhere. Correction: it’s in just about every processed food you might buy. It’s added to a lot of foods many people don’t think of as unhealthy. It contributes to weight gain and diabetes and really has nothing good about it.

The film touches on the fructose debate with the argument about our livers converting it straight to fat. Happily, it doesn’t victimise poor old fruit or suggest we shouldn’t be eating that.

The film leaves the calorie issue until late. Damon claims to eat 2300 calories per day on his “normal” (low sugar diet). He then says he’s eating “pretty much” the same number on his high-sugar diet, although it’s pretty hard to count them, “obviously”. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to count calories when he’s counting grams of sugar without any problem. The nutritionist at the end, though, says he’s eating the same number. I’m slightly dubious about this, given his claims of being “unable” to count calories but anyway.

The film strays into an “us vs them” vein at one point, which started to annoy me. Damon questioned a “physician scientist” (whatever that is) who was the first to really talk about calories. The scientist very sensibly pointed out that if you obtained too many of your calories from any one source, such as French fries or white bread, not just sugar, you’d probably feel dreadful as well. Damon then asked him (apropros of nothing) if he received any funding from Coca Cola and he said “yes, they fund my research”. I just found this deliberately and annoyingly provocative. If they wanted an “unbiased” view why did they ask a Coca Cola beneficiary for their opinion, only to then pretend to “expose” them (as if it was some kind of conspiracy). Moreover, maybe the film makers should look at their own “experts’” unmade disclosures, rather than asking/paying two non-scientists who’ve made a career out of writing “anti-sugar” books to give an un-biased opinion in a film about sugar. David Gillespie, the lawyer, even takes it upon himself at the end of the film to diagnose Damon with “well established fatty liver, well on your way to full-blown cirrhosis” on the basis of a slight rise in Damon’s liver function tests. I think that’s a big call in the absence of an ultrasound- oh, and a doctor!!!

So it sort of ends with a “sugar is poison” feel to it. Earlier in the film, Damon takes 4 apples and juices them, and points out that most people would eat maybe one or two apples but that it’s easy to drink 4 juiced apples. Which is true. But I’m not sure that really says anything about sugar, it’s the processing which removes all the good stuff and leaves behind sugary water which we can “slam down fast”. (Speaking of which, I’d love a Solo right now…..)

So what can we/I/anyone take away from all this? At the end of the day, I think the film’s basic message is probably a good one. Eat less sugar by eating less processed food and more simple, natural, unprocessed food. Whether this makes us healthier by virtue of the sugar reduction, the calorie reduction or the increase in good fats and fibre, hardly matters. It’ll make me re-think my Saturday afternoon ice-cream, at any rate!!!!!

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