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A filmmaker explores the scary effects of hidden sugars

When you test a high-sugar diet and show signs of fatty liver disease in just 18 days without eating any “junk food” — you know the story needs to be shared.

When you decide to do an experiment on your own body to test the effects of a high sugar diet and you show signs of fatty liver disease in just 18 days without eating any “junk food” — and at the same time matching your pre-experiment calorie intake — you know the story needs to be shared.

One half of sugar, fructose, is unique in that it metabolizes by turning to fat in our liver. Nearly one in three people in the U.S. now have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which didn't exist 35 years ago. This is what had happened to me in less than three weeks while eating the average amount of sugar consumed by my fellow Australians every day.

My experiment with sugar and the resulting documentary, “That Sugar Film,” provided me with a sneak peak under the veil of the food and sugar industry matrix. I learned how we all have a “bliss point” for sugar, which is the optimal amount of sweetness in a food that the companies spend millions striving for. I learned about the manipulation of science that goes on to protect the enormous profits from sugar. I saw the horrible impact that sugar is having on the children of Kentucky, and I now understand that sugar lights up the same reward areas in our brain as nicotine, cocaine and sex — and we only have to see an image of it to trigger these responses.

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The journey toward making “That Sugar Film” began during the warm Australian summer of 2008, when I was pretending to enjoy life as an early 30s single male. For me, that meant smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and pouring two cans of Vanilla Coke down my throat. But as often happens with a man, he is wrenched from the clutches of self-destruction just in the nick of time by a nurturing and emotionally intelligent woman. My radiant and effervescent creature of choice just happened to also be surrounded by a force field of healthy habits, which meant that I was soon pretending to be deeply interested in healthy eating, too.

As a result, and without thinking much about it, I quickly went from consuming around 30 teaspoons of added sugar a day to virtually none. Two months into this rigorous “wooing” process, I began to notice the changes. People commented on my improved skin and eye brightness, I noticed that I had lost a few layers of my hibernation suit. The biggest surprise was that I felt calmer and more balanced and present throughout the day.

Jump cut to three years later: At the time, there was a lot of press starting to emerge about sugar, but the camps were very divided. Some used words like “toxic” and “poisonous” while others cried “essential for energy.” With talk of babies now frequenting our conversations, I thought the only way to find out the truth about sugar was to do an experiment on my own body and document the results.

I assembled a team of doctors, scientists and nutritionists, and went about consuming 40 teaspoons of sugar a day — which sadly is what most Australians between the age of 19 and 30 are eating. (This includes fruit juices, concentrates and other sweeteners like honey and maple syrup.)

But there was a catch that came in aisle five of my local supermarket, where I decided to properly read some labels and discovered that BBQ sauce, Hoisin Sauce and Sweet Chili sauce all had more sugar in them per serving than chocolate sauce. What if I could eat my 40 teaspoons of sugar a day by only consuming products that many people would perceive to be “healthy”?

The rules were set. For 60 days I would maintain the same level of exercise that I already did and I would eat no chocolate, ice cream, soft drinks or candy. The 40 teaspoons a day would be “hidden sugars” found in foods like low-fat yogurt, cereals, muesli bars, juices, sports drinks and assorted condiments.

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There was a spike in interest when I put on 5 pounds in just 12 days, but the real alarm sounded when I had showed signs of fatty liver disease after just 18 days. By the end of the experiment I had put on 19 pounds, developed pre type-2 diabetes and heart disease risks, had an extra 4 inches of the dangerous visceral fat around my belly and noticed an enormous impact on my moods and cognitive functions (a topic that is increasingly being looked at in academic circles).

I think the residents of many affluent suburbs around the world are already aware of the sugar message. The goal of “That Sugar Film” was to penetrate what I like to call the “quinoa curtain” and get the message to the people that actually need it the most.

Damon Gameau is the writer, director and star of “That Sugar Film,” which is now in theaters and on demand. The film debuted in Australian three months ago and is now the highest-grossing Australian documentary of all time. It also inspired a full curriculum study guide and a book that is currently rolling out in schools.