“Sugar Crash,” a documentary, details the havoc that excess sugar consumption is causing for the people of Ireland, a country that ranks No. 4 in sugar consumption worldwide. On average, the Irish are consuming 24 teaspoons of sugar per person daily, whereas the World Health Organization recommends limiting it to 6 teaspoons a day to protect your health.1 For comparison, in the U.S, the No. 1 consumers of sugar worldwide, the average American consumes 31.6 teaspoons of sugar each day.
The start of the film details the perils of tooth decay, with children just 4 and 6 years old requiring numerous tooth extractions. Sugar was blamed as the definite culprit, starting from the time the children are infants chewing on sugar-laced teething biscuits into later childhood when sugary juices became the drink of choice. There are more than 50 different names to describe sugar on food labels, which means if you’re trying to remove it from your diet, you’d better become well-versed in the many pseudonyms.
Even savory foods like pizza and pasta sauce have added sugars, as do popular condiments like ketchup and salad dressings. Sugary drinks alone can contain 10 or 11 teaspoons of sugar in one can, which puts you well over the recommended limit for the day. While the documentary focuses on Ireland’s sugar habit, it’s one that’s shared through much of the developed world, with devastating repercussions on global health.
How Did so Much Sugar Creep Into Our Diets?
Ireland was the thinnest country in Europe after World War II, and the increasing weight that occurred during the ‘50s and ‘60s was seen as a good thing. However, average weight caught up with the rest of Europe by the ‘70s and continued rising, such that Ireland is slated to become the fattest country in Europe by 2030. Expanding waistlines are again blamed largely on diet. As occurred in the U.S., food manufacturers and health agencies alike began to vilify fat, removing it from foods starting in the ‘70s.
Without fat to make food taste good, food manufacturers turned to other less-healthy additives, namely processed salt and sugar. Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California in San Francisco (USCF), explained that sugar was added in such a way that it made the food irresistible. If you find it difficult to stop eating sugary foods, or find that the more you eat them, the more you want them, it’s because sugar is addictive.
Sugar stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in many important pathways, most notably the mesolimbic pathway.2 The way dopamine affects your brain in this area changes with addiction and spikes your perception of motivation or pleasure.
In fact, evidence in humans shows that sugar can induce reward responses and cravings that are comparable to those induced by addictive drugs, which may “explain why many people can have difficultly … [controlling] the consumption of foods high in sugar when continuously exposed to them.”3
Even if You’re Thin and ‘Healthy,’ Sugar Could Be Devastating Your Health
Sugar makes you pack on excess pounds and prevents your body from burning body fat. It’s been implicated as a foundational cause of obesity as well, but even if you’re not overweight, it’s very possible that sugar is damaging your health. “Sugar Crash” documents the story of one family, including a couple in their 40s who aren’t overweight but admit to eating sugary treats on a regular basis.
They have no outward indications of health problems, but MRI scans revealed they both had fat around their abdominal organs (visceral fat), which is linked to an increased risk of diseases like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and stroke, along with imbalanced cholesterol.
They cut down their sugar intake significantly and were able to reduce their visceral fat and improve their cholesterol, as shown later on in the film. Sugar Crash also features an interview with documentary filmmaker Damon Gameau, from “That Sugar Film,” who conducted an experiment during which he went from eating a low-sugar diet to consuming about 40 teaspoons of sugar a day.
What makes the experiment even more surprising is that he got to 40 teaspoons not by feasting on candy and soda but by eating supposedly “healthy” foods like energy drinks, fruit juice, cereal and yogurt. After 12 days of ramping up his sugar intake, Gameau had gained almost 7 pounds, the majority of which went straight to his abdomen.
In a month of eating 40 teaspoons of sugar per day, he added 2.75 inches (7 centimeters) to his waistline. Beyond weight gain, Gameau began displaying signs of fatty liver disease within three weeks. "By the end, I'd developed pre-Type 2 diabetes, I had heart disease, I had 11 centimeters of visceral fat. But the big one was, the nonalcoholic fatty liver disease was almost in a full-blown state," said Gameau in a news article highlighting his film.4