The film-maker who risked death by sugar is fighting fit again

by Nicky Pellegrino / 17 January, 2018
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Damon Gameau with partner Zoe Tuckwell-Smith. Photo/Getty

For his 2015 documentary That Sugar Film, Melbourne actor and film-maker Damon Gameau consumed 40 teaspoons of the sweet stuff a day – the same as the average Australian – and documented the health effects. He reached his target, not by downing cans of fizzy drinks, but with a diet made up of foods perceived as healthy but actually rich in hidden sugar: muesli bars, breakfast cereals, fruit juice.

At the start of this experiment he was in good health; just 60 days later, he’d gained 8.5kg, his body fat had increased 7% and his waist had expanded by 10cm. His insulin levels had doubled and doctors said that, if he carried on the same way, he’d be pre-diabetic in six months.

Even more worrying, his liver was in terrible shape, pumping fat into his bloodstream, and laying the foundations of cardiovascular disease. He was on the edge of cirrhosis. And he was prey to terrible mood swings.

After he went into sugar rehab, all of Gameau’s health markers turned around and he was back to normal within three months.

How is your health now?

Apart from life stress – juggling making a new film with having a toddler – I’d say my health is good. I haven’t changed my diet or fallen off a cliff and developed a Mountain Dew addiction. I’m fortunate enough to be able to eat well.

How it will be in the longer term only time will tell, but right now, in terms of my liver, insulin and pancreas, all that has cleared up. I have medical follow-ups every six months and the symptoms have gone. So that’s a great story for other people: you can change your health for the better.

Are you still surprised at how quickly your health deteriorated?

It was a shock to everyone. In hindsight, if I’d known how badly it was going to affect me I’d never have done it.

When is the last time you ate sugar?

On Christmas Day, I had a vanilla custard thing. On the doctors’ advice, I gave [sugar] up completely while I was trying to get healthy again, but now I’m not extreme about avoiding it. I do have to be careful, as I notice it the next day – it affects my mood. So I just make sure I’m smart. I’ll have it every now and then. If I go to a restaurant, it’s probably in some sort of sauce, but I don’t worry about that, and if someone makes me a beautiful dessert, I’ll try it.

What was the impact of That Sugar Film?

Scientists were interested, because at the time there were very few human trials with excess fructose – just a lot that had been done in rats. I think the film came out at the right time. It rode a wave and because it was accessible, it opened the door to a slightly different audience. It’s now much more accepted that sugar is detrimental. The Australian Medical Association just declared war on it [calling for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks]. I’d like to think we contributed to that change.

What are you up to now?

I’m two years into making a film called 2040. I’ve been going round the world and talking to children about the world they want to live in and looking at what the future will be like if we put these things into practice. It’s been hopeful and heartwarming. The film will have the same fun and playfulness as That Sugar Film, and will aim to provide a more positive alternative to the dystopian vision that we’re getting right now.

The damage done to Damon Gameau: A tale of two months

  1. Liver: A key marker for determining liver health is an enzyme called ALT. Gameau’s went from 20 at the start of the experiment (20 below the safe level) to 60 (20 above).
  2. Triglycerides: Triglyceride levels show how much fat is in the bloodstream. Gameau’s results revealed that his liver filled with fat, which was being pumped into his blood. This is how many scientists have linked sugar to metabolic disease. At the start of the experiment, Gameau’s triglyceride reading was a healthy 0.08, but it jumped to 1.5, which is regarded as the risk point.
  3. Cholesterol: High levels of triglycerides are a new marker for potential heart disease. Cholesterol interacts with triglycerides, forming the dangerous small, dense LDL (low-density lipoprotein) particles that can clog and block our arteries.
  4. Weight: Gameau’s weight went from 76kg to 84.5kg, a total gain of 8.5kg and an increase in total body fat of 7%, without eating any junk food.
  5. Waist measurement: “This was one of the more alarming results of my experiment,” says Gameau. “I put on 10cm of fat around my waist. This fat is the dangerous type of fat called visceral fat that can cramp the organs and lead to many diseases.”
  6. Calorie count: Gameau considers this “the biggest shock” of the experiment. He ate the same number of calories during the 60 days as on his previous diet, but the big difference was the source of the calories. Before embarking on the project, he ate roughly 2300 calories a day, with 50% from fat, 26% from carbohydrates and 24% from protein. During the experiment, he still ate roughly 2300 calories a day, but 60% came from carbohydrates, 18% from fat and 22% from protein, meaning he virtually swapped healthy fats for sugar-laden products. New research suggests that the calories from sugar, and fructose in particular, behave differently from other calories.

For the latest research on how your brain makes you crave sugar – and how to control it, pick up a copy of the new Listener.

This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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