Sugar Daddy

27 February 2015 Tim Kroenert

Sugar Daddy

Tim Kroenert, Ed#478, February 2015

When Damon Gameau describes his debut documentary, he doesn’t sugar-coat it: “It was the official definition of putting your body on the line.”

In 2011, the actor (Underbelly; Balibo) had just won Tropfest with his kooky stop-motion, Animal Beatbox, when he started to become fascinated with sugar. By then, the anti-sugar movement had started to gain traction in its efforts to blame the West’s ill-health squarely on the sweet stuff.

“It was very confusing,” Gameau says. ‘There was no clear message about sugar. There were people saying it’s toxic, and others saying it’s good for your health and good for energy.”

Gameau himself had been sugar-free for years, following the lead of his girlfriend, fellow actor Zoe Tuckwell-Smith. What better way to put sugar to the test than by pulling a ‘Morgan Spurlock’: using himself as a guinea pig to see just what impact a high-sugar diet would have.

“Sugar has such a vibrant, Willy Wonka kind of aesthetic, and I felt that I could really have some fun with it,” he says. “The goal was to make the film fun, creative and accessible. There’s no point making a film like this and having it show at 11.30 on SBS on a Sunday night.”

That Sugar Film makes extensive use of animation and skits to convey its barrage of information. Hugh Jackman appears as a raconteur expounding sugar’s history, and Stephen Fry delivers a lecture in Seussian. The film is part colourful confection – with the boyish Gameau at its sweet, chewy centre – and part nutritious feast of facts and expert opinions.

The experiment is overseen by a team of experts who monitor the impacts on Gameau’s health and offer insight into what’s going on in his body. The results are astonishing: in 60 days he gains 8.5 kilos, developing early symptoms of diabetes and fatty liver disease.

“The thing that shocked me most was the impact on my moods, cognition and ability to concentrate,” Gameau says. He adds that this is particularly relevant to parents who may not realise that the hidden sugars in everyday foods might be affecting their children’s performance at school (the film will be accompanied by a book and a website containing resources for teachers and parents).

Comparisons between That Sugar Film and Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004) – which did for McDonald’s what Gameau hopes to do for sugar – are inevitable. Gameau dubs Spurlock the “lord of the human lab rat”, and admits they exchanged emails early on in the project. Yet in many ways, Gameau’s case is the more compelling. While the negative impacts of Spurlock’s all-Maccas diet were hardly surprising, Gameau suffered the consequences of his 40-teaspoons-a-day quota (equivalent to an average Australian adult) by eating only perceived ‘healthy’ foods like cereal, low-fat yoghurt and fruit juice.

Moreover, his calorie intake during the experiment more or less resembled that of his usual diet, which consists mostly of protein, healthy fats and vegetables – something that seems to negate the overly simplistic ‘calories in, calories out’ line peddled by mainstream diet industries.

For the first three weeks the crew shot on a tiny budget. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Gameau explains. “Because I was eating these healthy foods, we thought there might not be anything to report… It was only when I had the first blood tests and saw that I had fatty liver disease, and the fact that I’d put on three kilos in the first 12 days, that I thought okay, there’s something going on now.”

Gameau’s quest takes him to the Northern Territory, where the prevalence of high-sugar beverages in particular has taken a dire toll on remote Indigenous communities. He also travels to America, the junk food heartland, where he yarns with spin doctors of the food industry and witnesses the excruciating dental procedure a Kentucky teenager endures to reverse the hideous effects of ‘Mountain Dew Mouth’.

While Gameau’s girlfriend was supportive of the project, Gameau admits that his stint as a human lab rat did create tensions, especially after Tuckwell-Smith fell pregnant early on in the project. It was a relief, then, to find that whatever damage he did during the course of the experiment was almost as easily undone – something that makes for an unexpected happy ending to That Sugar Film.

“We were going to end the film with me getting my results,” he says. “But then as we were editing, I cut out sugar and went back to my normal diet, and suddenly I started losing weight – my fatty liver disease, the different blood tests, everything had turned around in two months.

“We then put that into the film because we thought that is a fantastic story. It doesn’t have to take you years. Some of these symptoms might be helped simply by starting to change your diet.”

» Tim Kroenert is a regular contributor to The Big Issue.

That Sugar Film will tour Australia throughout March. 

This article appears in Ed#478 of The Big Issue magazine.