Back in 2004, Morgan Spurlock, a largely unknown writer and performer, achieved global fame with his movie Super Size Me. The premise was simple. Spurlock would eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days and see what effect it had on his health. To add an extra twist, Spurlock would take the ‘supersize’ meal deal whenever he was offered it, which seemed to be quite often. As a result, he consumed over 5,000 calories per day (roughly twice what an average man would require), gained weight, and apparently, within just a few weeks, suffered life-threatening changes to his body.
Ten years later, another largely unheralded performer, Damon Gameau, has recycled the idea in a new film, Sugar Size Me. Actually, it’s not called that, but clearly unable to get past the behemoth that was Spurlock’s achievement, he ended up calling his effort That Sugar Film. But the dubious central point is the same: eat a bad diet – this time for 60 days – and watch the ill-effects emerge.
A few years ago, after meeting his girlfriend, who we learn is also the soon-to-be mother of his child, Gameau gave up eating all refined sugars. So at the start of the movie, he’s a wiry specimen of good health. But he’s confused. He’s been reading all this stuff online about sugar and doesn’t know what to make of it. At one point, he appears to be reading my spiked article The sweet truth: 10 myths about sugar. But the rest of the film suggests he didn’t bother actually to read it. Still, thanks for the publicity, Damon!
So, to find out for himself just how bad sugar is, he decides to eat a diet of apparently healthy food that is, in fact, full of sugar. Now to be fair to Gameau, he doesn’t just neck a big bottle of full-sugar Coke every day to get his allocation of the sweet stuff. No, he eats processed foods and even drinks fruit juices that are promoted as being good for you. According to his expert adviser, David Gillespie, he needs to consume 40 teaspoons of sugar every day to match the intake of the average Aussie. Gillespie is not a doctor or expert researcher – he’s a corporate lawyer and the author of Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat. Not necessarily the most authoritative source of information, but Gameau attempts to make him seem cool by giving him the nickname ‘The Crusader’. (There’s a lot of this grating ‘fun’ in That Sugar Film – as the closing song illustrates.)
Forty teaspoons of sugar a day? That seems an astonishing amount, and it probably is on the high side. According to the Australian Health Survey (AHS), published in 2014, men consumed about 2,300 calories per day. Of that, 20 per cent, or 460 calories, came from sugars. That’s about 29 teaspoons, including all sugars in the Aussie diet. Before we get too excited, the survey suggests 16 per cent of that sugar came from fruit, about nine per cent from milk and seven per cent from fruit-and-vegetable juices and drinks. This isn’t simply a case of food manufacturers stuffing foods with sugar – a lot of dietary sugar is in ‘natural’ foods. By comparison, just under 10 per cent came from soft drinks.