Is it really 10 years since Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me? This experiment in fast-food gastronomy saw Spurlock attempting to subsist totally on fast food from McDonald’s for an entire month. In the process his weight balloons, his energy level plummets and he experiences all sorts of unexpected and terrifying side effects. For those who didn’t see the film, it was a wake-up call for bad food habits and of course for McDonalds it was a serious kick up the backside, which contributed to a hastily put together ‘Healthy’ options menu that didn’t really fool anyone. One of the main issues then as now was the definition of ‘healthy’ food. While some believed it meant less processed food and at least 5 portions of fruit and veg. a day, McDonalds thought it simply meant putting a few extra slivers of lettuce in your burger, proposing you leave out the cheese and offering some low calorie dressings and fruit-bars.
Ten years on Australian director Damon Gameua decided to take things in a similar direction, by filming what he called a reverse documentary to Super Size Me, That Sugar Film. The result challenges the whole idea of pre-packed processed “health” food – which in reality is an oxymoron because most things produced in this way can only survive to point of sale after being fortified with preservatives, food stabilisers or steeped in salt, sugar or cacogenic sweeteners. Gameua was a fit man before he took on the task many thought should have increased his health and wellbeing. Instead, just like Spurlock, he soon received an unsettling warning from his GP, experienced dire mood swings and gained weight after living on a low-fat, high-sugar health food diet for 60 days.
“I had no soft drinks, chocolate, ice cream or confectionery,” Gameau told Yahoo. “All the sugars that I was eating were found in perceived healthy foods, so low-fat yogurts, and muesli bars, and cereals, and fruit juices, sports drinks… These kind of things that parents often give their kids thinking they’re doing the right thing.” However, within just three weeks, Gameau’s doctor told him he had already begun to develop fatty liver disease – which can lead to liver failure. His mental functioning was also branded as “unstable.”
On average Gameau consumed 40 teaspoons of sugar a day – just slightly more than the average teenager worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that a healthy adult should aim to include no more than 25grams of sugar a day, or six teaspoons. Far from the giant Big Mac burger of Spurlock’s final dinner, Gameau’s last meal of the project was more akin to a child’s school lunchbox – a biscuit bar, fruit juice, a jam sandwich, and a handful of snacks. “The last meal was for all the people out there, especially parents, who have been led to believe they are doing the right and healthy thing for their children,” he said. “They are making an effort yet are horribly let down by the lack of integrity in marketing and packaging.”
However, Gameau went on to explain that the findings of his experiment didn’t suggest we needed to cut sugar completely from our diets, but rather be more aware of where it has been added. “Sugar is now in 80 per cent of the processed food we’re eating,” he said. “If we can remove that, that’s the first step towards making a change.” As well as the immediate health effects of consuming excess sugar, links between sugar and a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease (one of the leading causes of death in the developed world) and type 2 diabetes also exist.
Of course for people with even a moderate interest in healthy eating, what Gameau has to say is nothing new. Indeed some critics have already described his (yet to be released) film using words such as: Bandwagon and Jumping on the… In 2002 a study by Bernard Gesch provided solid evidence that poor nutrition plays a significant role in triggering aggressive behaviour after his findings proved that prisoners given regular dosages of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, with their meals broke 26% less prison rules. Further back in 1983 Stephen Schoenthaler’s conducted a year-long study of 3,000 imprisoned teenagers, whose snack foods were replaced with healthier options containing reduced processed and sugary foods. During the year violent incidents decreased by almost half, a 21% reduction in anti-social behaviour, 100% reduction in suicides, 25% reduction in assaults, and a 75% reduction in use of restraints.
Despite the mounting evidence against sugar, our addiction to it and processed foods is as stubborn as ever and set to get worse if some food retailers have their way. Having co-authored a couple of bestselling nutrition books, you would be right to think my own diet is almost devoid of processed foods and added sugar. However, as I now live in rural Turkey finding something like a ready meal on a supermarket shelf is almost unheard of. Even in the cities, where the supermarkets can match in size many in the USA and Europe, you will still be lucky to find more than a small fridge or section of a fridge devoted to such unhealthy food instead of the aisles upon aisles I was used to seeing when I lived in London. Yes there may be a slow increase in frozen foods but the majority of supermarket shelf-space here is devoted to either dried goods, like legumes and rice etc or to fresh, locally produced food. There is a different mindset here when it comes to preparing food and extra time is taken to craft a meal so it can be appreciated. While too many of us are perhaps just too used to buying junk food or shoving things into a microwave or the oven, to maximize our time for other things, even if by doing so we know we are consuming far too much sugar, salt, fat and other health impairing elements.
Of course things are changing here like in any other developing country, where a growing middle class all too often wrongly associate affluence as being rich enough to copy the habits of wealthier western nations, even if those habits are bad ones. So although I expect it will happen soon, the day I wander into my local supermarket and see a TV dinner selection or something as disgusting as turkey twizzlers…in Turkey will be a very dark day indeed.
That Sugar Film , which features Stephen Fry will be released in 2015.