YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

07.28.15 9:15 AM ET

How ‘Healthy Foods’ Are Killing You

Professor Laura A. Schmidt of UC San Francisco’s School of Medicine writes about the perils of sugar—explored in the documentary That Sugar Film, in theaters and on demand July 31.

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. 

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.