Each summer, staff at the O’Neill Institute gather to informally enjoy and discuss films covering events in public health. This summer, the majority of the movies – Food, Inc., Fed Up and Food Chains – focused on the role that the food industry plays in shaping American eating habits.
The O’Neill Institute wrapped up its summer movie series with a screening of the recently released That Sugar Film, Damon Gameau’s debut as a feature film-maker. The film documents Damon’s shift from a diet free of refined sugars to a diet that involves consuming the average Austrailian’s intake of sugar. For 60 days, Damon consumes 40 teaspoons of sugar each day but does so without drinking any soda or eating any candy. He consumes only foods that are marketed as “healthy,” such as low-fat yogurt, granola bars, juices and cereal, but which in fact are laden with hidden sugars.
The results are staggering. Within just 3 weeks, Damon starts to develop fatty liver disease. And by the end of the experiment he has early Type 2 diabetes, increased heart-disease risks, 11 centimeters of extra girth around his midriff and violent mood swings.
Here are my 3 takeaways from the movie:
The health consequences of sugar consumption have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities. According to the CDC, low-income people consume more sugar drinks in relation to their overall diet than those with higher income. They are more likely to live in food deserts, where they lack access to full-service grocery stores and farmers’ markets that offer healthy, fresh foods. Until we address America’s deep food divide, lower-income individuals will continue to develop diet-related diseases at disproportionate rates.
All calories may not be equal. This movie, like the movie Fed Up, suggests that Americans have been misled by the idea that we get fat simply because we consume more calories than we expend. The results of Damon’s experiment appear to confirm studies showing that calories from different foods are not absorbed the same and that how much energy people expend – when consuming the same number of calories – can depend on their diet.
The parallels between the soda industry and the tobacco industry are striking. Damon, like other critics, argues that by marketing heavily to children, claiming their products are healthy or at worst benign and lobbying to prevent change, producers of sugar-sweetened drinks are acting a lot like the tobacco industry. Maybe that’s why a growing number of public health advocates are urging that soda be treated like tobacco, with taxes, warning labels and a massive public health marketing campaign, all to discourage consumption.