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July 17, 2015

Damon Gameau talks about eating 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for his new doc, That Sugar Film



In 2013, Damon Gameau set out to eat 40 teaspoons of sugar every day for 60 days. Thirteen days in, he developed fatty liver disease. Two years later, he admits he had no idea what he was getting into.

“You can tell by the fact that I wanted it to go to 60 days, kind of shows my naiveté,” he says. “I felt so exhausted. I was just cranky. I knew how differently I felt, and the different person I was when I was eating proper foods. I didn’t like who I had become.”

The results of Gameau’s experiment — transitioning from basically zero processed foods and added sugars to a diet that mimicked the average sugar intake in his native Australia — is That Sugar Film. It’s a documentary chronicling the potentially detrimental health impacts of our high-sugar diets, which opened in Australia late last year and in Toronto this week. The film has already received stamps of approval from nutritionists and food activists alike; Jamie Oliver is among its outspoken supporters.

Gameau is not a nutritionist, physician or an activist — he’s an actor, and That Sugar Film is often more light-hearted than grave in its message-delivering methodology. Nevertheless, the documentary fits well into a lineage of similarly minded films to hit theatres of late — such as Food Inc., Forks over Knives and Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead — that aim to change our conventional thinking about what we eat.

But the most apt comparison, and one Gameau has received innumerable times since That Sugar Film’s theatrical release in Australia, is to Super Size Me, the 2004 documentary that saw filmmaker Morgan Spurlock subsist on a diet of McDonald’s for an entire month. Like Spurlock, Gameau’s progress is closely monitored by physicians throughout the experiment.

“Like me, they didn’t know what they were going to get,” Gameau says, noting that nobody expected liver disease in under three weeks. He admits that the severe changes his body went through after reintroducing sugar — weight gain (particularly around his belly), lethargy, skin breakouts, headaches and nausea — were perhaps highlighted by the fact that, before the experiment, he was a remarkably healthy eater. “I think there is an element of (the story) that any time you change your diet that drastically, you’re going to get symptoms,” he says. “But even though it’s the study of one person, there’s enough evidence to show that it’s a bad thing.

Aside from the warnings of his physicians, Gameau received one major criticism at the outset of his project: focusing on a single ingredient wasn’t likely to yield significant results.

“People were saying, ‘Nutrition doesn’t work like that,’ ” Gameau recalls, “And I wasn’t having any kind of junk foods, so even I didn’t know whether we’d get any results at all. But you don’t find other substances pervading through the food supply like sugar.”

Indeed, in That Sugar Film, Gameau didn’t fill his sugar quota by drinking soda, eating candy bars or gorging on ice creams, but rather by consuming what he described as “perceived health foods” — cereal, boxed juice, low-fat yogurts — that are packed with added sugars. Sugar, Gameau learns, is insidious: one early shot in the film shows how many grocery items would remain on shelves if those containing added amounts of the sweet stuff were removed. Only about 20% of packaged foods make the cut.

That fact, Gameau says, resonates particularly loudly with him as a parent — he and girlfriend Zoe Truckwell-Smith welcomed a baby daughter, Velvet, near the end of the documentary’s filming. “If I went out and drank Coke and ate donuts and Mars bars, everyone would know that I’d get sick,” he says. “But most parents give these other things to their kids believing they’re doing the right things.”

Gameau says the aspect of the doc he’s most excited about is its educational component, a tookkit consisting of the movie, as well as factsheets and study guides for school-aged children that can be purchased by teachers in Australia.

“The people who need to see it are teenagers,” Gameau says, “who are not caring about what they’re putting in their bodies and developing bad habits.”

Gameau is hopeful that the educational materials — or at least That Sugar Film’s message — will reach other shores, too, particularly North America’s. He spent some time filming the documentary in the United States, and says he was surprised by access to food that wasn’t fast or processed. One scene in the film sees him driving along a freeway pointing out the inaccuracy of rest-stop exit signs: “They all say ‘exit here for food,’ ” Gameau sighs as he drives past McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King.

Eating better, Gameau says, isn’t just a matter of knowledge. It’s also about access. “North America’s very different,” he says. “We’re lucky in Australia. As you saw in the film, it was impossible to get something fresh in Middle America. We’re at the start of a tricky conversation. Good food should be a basic human right. I hope that, like with tobacco, we’re having a different conversation in 30 years.”

That Sugar Film screens Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday at Cineplex Yonge Dundas in Toronto; visit thatsugarfilm.com for more info.