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Can "Healthy Foods" Make You Sick?

Australian film director Damon Gameau performed an experiment on himself. For 60 days, he exclusively ate what most Americans believe is “healthy food.” By the end of this period, he had self-induced what we in medical research call Metabolic Syndrome—the underlying hormonal dysfunction that accounts for the rising rates of diabetes, heart, and liver disease in America.

In That Sugar Film, Gameau documents in less than two hours what has been occurring gradually throughout the U.S. population over decades. He puts on a stunning 15 pounds in just 60 days while keeping his daily calorie count and exercise levels stable. It has taken Americans 30 years to reach our current record-level weight gain, but with an equally stunning outcome: Today, 70 percent of us are overweight or obese, making us the fattest society on Earth. 

So how did he do it? What is novel about Gameau’s experiment is that he disciplined himself to eat only “healthy foods”—that is, foods marketed as healthy on the front of the package. To speed up the disease process, he consumed twice as much added sugar as the average American: 44 grams per day. 

"We need to stop thinking about our weight and health as individual choices. We need to start talking about how our food supply is making many of us sick."

Remarkably, Gameau never touched real junk food. Instead, he survived for 60 days on our abundant supply of pseudo-health foods: granola bars, sugary low-fat yogurts, bottled juice cocktails, smoothies, and Einstein-endorsed “superfood” crackly snacks. 

And what was the result of the experiment? Mr. Gameau, who started out healthy, gave himself Metabolic Syndrome or “MetS.” This condition, which afflicts 56 million Americans, is diagnosed by the presence of five symptoms. Unfortunately, only one of these symptoms is easily identified: central obesity or weight held around the midsection, otherwise known as “sugar belly.” In his short experiment, Gameau gained several inches around the waist. 

To diagnose the full syndrome, you need to see a doctor. But the other symptoms of MetS include: high blood pressure, high triglycerides (or fats floating around in the blood stream), high blood sugar, and high cholesterol. Having MetS significantly increases the risk of premature death from most forms of chronic disease.

How does prolonged, heavy added sugar contribute to MetS? Over time, consuming large quantities of added sugar can stress and damage critical organs, including the liver. Large doses of the common sugar, fructose, overwhelm the liver, which metabolizes fructose. In the process, the liver converts the excess fructose to fat, some of which is stored in the liver, and some of which is released into the bloodstream to be selectively deposited around the midsection. 

MetS, induced by poor diet, is the force behind one of the most disturbing trends in public health today: diseases of adulthood that now occur in children. One in four American teenagers have diabetes or pre-diabetes—a condition otherwise known as “adult onset diabetes.” Added sugar and MetS are also behind a new disease that now appears in 31 percent of American adults and 13 percent of children: “non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.” This condition can be linked back to the harmful effects of fructose on the liver. By 2025, it will be the leading cause for liver transplantation in America.

These are sobering realities, but ones that I believe we need to struggle with as a society. We need to stop thinking about our weight and health as individual choices. We need to start talking about how our food supply is making many of us sick.

We would all like to think that we have free choice about what we eat. We’d like to believe that by being a savvy shopper and having willpower—by counting calories, avoiding junk food, working out at the gym—we can control our weight and prevent disease. But if a healthy Australian can make himself sick in just 60 days by eating what we call healthy food, then we’ve got to start questioning that assumption.

(Originally posted in The Daily Beast)

Interview with Damon Gameau on The Today Show, NBC

That Sugar Film - In Theaters and Available on iTunes

non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

(also called NAFLD) Fatty liver that is not caused by drinking too much alcohol. Too much alcohol drinking can cause fatty liver diseases and steatohepatitis. NAFLD happens to people who are overweight, have diabetes, high cholesterol or high triglycerides in their blood. Rapid changes in weight can also cause NAFLD. It can happen to even those without any of the things listed above. It is common, up to 31% of adults in the United States have NAFLD.

SugarScience Glossary

Added sugar

Any sugar added in preparation of foods, either at the table, in the kitchen or in the processing plant. This may include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and others.

SugarScience Glossary

Metabolic syndrome

Also called Syndrome X is a group of body abnormalities that go along with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. The definition of this syndrome varies a little worldwide.

SugarScience Glossary

Metabolic syndrome

Also called Syndrome X is a group of body abnormalities that go along with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. The definition of this syndrome varies a little worldwide.

SugarScience Glossary

Liver disease

A broad term meaning any bodily process in which the liver is injured or does not work as it is supposed to. In this website we focus on liver diseases in which the diet hurts the liver

SugarScience Glossary

Diabetes mellitus

Usually shortened to just diabetes. Sometimes called sugar diabetes. Look at Type 1 Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes for more information

SugarScience Glossary

Triglycerides

The most common type of fat in our body and in our food. We can eat triglycerides, our bodies can make triglyceride, and our livers can turn excess sugar into triglycerides. If we do not burn triglycerides as fuel, they are stored as fat in the liver and elsewhere in the body.

SugarScience Glossary

Fat

One of the three major groups of nutrients we eat. Much of this website is related to problems associated with too much fat storage in the body. Each gram of fat produces 9 calories of energy if burned by the body as fuel. Fat can be stored in many places in the body. We generally think of fat as under the skin (subcutaneous), but the fat that may be most damaging to us is the fat stored in the liver and around the organs of the abdomen (intrahepatic and visceral or abdominal or intra-abdominal)

SugarScience Glossary

Fructose

A sugar that we eat. Also called fruit sugar. Most fructose comes in sucrose (table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar), or from high-fructose corn syrup.

SugarScience Glossary

Liver

The largest internal organ. It weighs about three to four pounds and is located under the lower edge of the ribs on the right side. It helps us digest our food and remove toxins from our blood. "Hepat" in a word means liver, so an "hepato-toxin" is a liver poison or something that can cause damage to the liver

SugarScience Glossary

SugarScience is the authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health.

Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH

Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH, is a professor in the UCSF School of Medicine. She has dedicated her career to intervening on the social determinants of health and to understanding how lifestyle risk factors, such as alcohol and poor diet, influence chronic disease and health inequality.

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