Thursday, 23 February 2017

Fact or fiction – is sugar addictive?

Amy Reichelt, RMIT University 

Some of us can definitely say we have a sweet tooth. Whether it’s cakes, chocolates, cookies, lollies or soft drinks, our world is filled with intensely pleasurable sweet treats. Sometimes eating these foods is just too hard to resist.

As a nation, Australians consume, on average, 60 grams (14 teaspoons) of table sugar (sucrose) a day. Excessive consumption of sugar is a major contributor to the increasing rates of obesity in both Australia and globally.

Eating sugary foods can become ingrained into our lifestyles and routines. That spoonful of sugar makes your coffee taste better and dessert can feel like the best part of dinner. If you’ve ever tried to cut back on sugar, you may have realised how incredibly difficult it is. For some people it may seem downright impossible. This leads to the question: can you be addicted to sugar?

Sugar activates the brain’s reward system

Sweet foods are highly desirable due the powerful impact sugar has on the reward system in the brain called the mesolimbic dopamine system. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released by neurons in this system in response to a rewarding event.

Drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine hijack this brain system. Activation of this system leads to intense feelings of reward that can result in cravings and addiction. So drugs and sugar both activate the same reward system in the brain, causing the release of dopamine.

This chemical circuit is activated by natural rewards and behaviours that are essential to continuing the species, such as eating tasty, high energy foods, having sex and interacting socially. Activating this system makes you want to carry out the behaviour again, as it feels good.

Our brain systems encourage us to undertake activities that will continue our species - such as eating high energy foods.

The criteria for substance use disorders by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) cites a variety of problems that arise when addicted to a substance. This includes craving, continuing use despite negative consequences, trying to quit but not managing to, tolerance and withdrawal. Although sugary foods are easily available, excessive consumption can lead to a number of problems similar to that of addiction. So it appears sugar may have addictive qualities. There is no concrete evidence that links sugar with an addiction/withdrawal system in humans currently, but studies using rats suggest the possibility.

Sweet attractions

Dopamine has an important role in the brain, directing our attention towards things in the environment like tasty foods that are linked to feelings of reward. The dopamine system becomes activated at the anticipation of feelings of pleasure.

This means our attention can be drawn to cakes and chocolates when we’re not necessarily hungry, evoking cravings. Our routines can even cause sugar cravings. We can subconsciously want a bar of chocolate or a fizzy drink in the afternoon if this is a normal part of our daily habits.

Sugar tolerance

Repeated activation of the dopamine reward system, for example by eating lots of sugary foods, causes the brain to adapt to the frequent reward system stimulation. When we enjoy lots of these foods on a regular basis, the system starts to change to prevent it becoming overstimulated. In particular, dopamine receptors start to down-regulate.

Now there are fewer receptors for the dopamine to bind to, so the next time we eat these foods, their effect is blunted. More sugar is needed the next time we eat in order to get the same feeling of reward. This is similar to tolerance in drug addicts, and leads to escalating consumption. The negative consequences of unrestrained consumption of sugary foods include weight gain, dental cavities and developing metabolic disorders including type-2 diabetes.

Quitting sugar leads to withdrawal

Sugar can exert a powerful influence over behaviour, making cutting it out of our diets very difficult. And quitting eating a high sugar diet “cold turkey” leads to withdrawal effects.

Our brain systems encourage us to undertake activities that will continue our species - such as eating high energy foods.

The length of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms following a sugar “detox” varies. Some people quickly adjust to functioning without sugar, while others may experience severe cravings and find it very difficult to resist sugary foods.

The withdrawal symptoms are thought to be factors of individual sensitivity to sugar as well as the dopamine system readjusting to a sugar-free existence. The temporary drop in dopamine levels are thought to cause many of the psychological symptoms including cravings, particularly as our environment is filled with sweet temptations that you now have to resist.

Why quit sugar?

Cutting sugar from your diet may not be easy, as so many processed or convenience foods have added sugars hidden in their ingredients. Switching from sugar to a sweetener (Stevia, aspartame, sucralose) can cut down on calories, but it is still feeding the sweet addiction. Similarly, sugar “replacements” like agave, rice syrup, honey and fructose are just sugar in disguise, and activate the brain’s reward system just as readily as sucrose.

Physically, quitting sugar in your diet can help with weight loss, may reduce acne, improve sleep and moods, and could stop those 3pm slumps at work and school. And if you do reduce sugar consumption, sugary foods that were previously eaten to excess can taste overpoweringly sweet due to a recalibration of your sweetness sensation, enough to discourage over-consumption!

The Conversation
Amy Reichelt, Lecturer, ARC DECRA, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 20 February 2017

So much art… not enough time! Art Study Tour Blog – Week 2

Some of the RMIT Art students in front of one of Dan Flavin’s light artworks at Dia Beacon.

by Deborah Sippitts

Halfway through the RMIT School of Art Study Tour there is a free weekend to check out more art, sightsee and explore … so much art, so much to see, not enough time!

On the Saturday I walked the length of 5th Avenue taking in famous landmarks along the way – the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building, the infamous Trump Tower with its full-on security and permanent protest on the pavement opposite, New York Public Library – where the original Pooh Bear lives, St Patrick’s Cathedral, the famous Christmas windows at Bergdorf’s and afternoon tea at the café there, Tiffany’s including a light dusting of magical real snow, light leopards climbing up the newly refurbished Cartier store, and a bit more of Central Park in the dark.

On Sunday, I visited Brooklyn with one of my friends and fellow travellers, Bronwyn, to catch-up with her cousin who lives and works in NY. We were treated to wonderful hospitality and a scrumptious bagel breakfast with scrambled eggs, salmon, cream cheese, tomatoes, juice and more.

On Monday we visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan. Founded in 1929 as an educational institution, MOMA is dedicated to being the foremost museum of modern art in the world.

At MOMA we got to see amazing world famous modern art from Andy Warhol’s Marilyn and Campbell’s soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art, to Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night and Piet Mondrian’s red, black, blue, yellow and gray squares … as well as art from Jackson Pollock, Bridget Riley, Yves Klein, Lee Bontecou, Max Ernst, Edward Rusha, Claes Oldenburg and many more. Amazing stuff and incredible to see it in situ in person as well.

The famous Ed Sorel Jazz Age mural at The Monkey Bar.
After an art-soaked morning at MOMA, a group of us went to The Monkey Bar at the Hotel Elysee for lunch. With appearances in Sex and the City and Mad Men, the Monkey Bar has a great atmosphere, cool retro décor and a wonderful mural in the main dining room. Renowned illustrator Ed Sorel was commissioned to paint the three-panelled mural paying homage to great Jazz Age figures, who once sailed through the Saloon doors including Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.

One NY hamburger lunch and stylish location ticked off, and it was back to MOMA for more modern art treasures, including an exhibition of artwork and band posters from San Francisco’s summer of love,1967.

Tuesday was a busy day for art – first over to Brooklyn via the subway for our second artist’s studio visit, this one with Nancy Brooks Brody. In her sparse white studio we got to see and find out about a range of artwork that she produces – drawings made from thread; Portraits of Days achieved by using lines, squares and rectangles of block colour; her Glory Holes in varying shades of black, white and grey; and her movable contrasting Color Forms.

One of Nancy Brooks Brody’s Glory Holes at her Brooklyn studio
I found the way Brooks Brody approached and talked about art – in a very logical and even mathematical way – really intriguing. I loved the minimal aesthetic, clean lines and limited colour palette.

After the studio visit we hung out at a café in Brooklyn for a while, then headed to The Guggenheim Museum for an exhibition by Agnes Martin.

Born in Canada in 1912, Martin was an American abstract painter. Her work was often referred to as minimalist, but she considered herself an abstract expressionist. We saw a retrospective of her works from the 1950s to 2004.

Viewing the Agnes Martin retrospective at The Guggenheim.

Again I loved Martin’s artwork – from a painting called Friendship from 1963 – which featured gold leaf and gesso on canvas, to one of her subdued stripe paintings such as Untitled 2004, acrylic and graphite on canvas. I loved the variety of simplicity in her art … as we walked to the top of the iconic Guggenheim building and then spiralled down its circular walkway taking in the exhibition.

A stunning and beautiful building, The Guggenheim is not necessarily the most perfect venue to display all types of art. But the Agnes Martin exhibition worked well in the circular gallery setting, with its minimal yet different, beautiful and at times mesmerising paintings.

On Wednesday we visited the Judd Foundation located right in the middle of SoHo. In 1968, Donald Judd purchased 101 Spring Street, a five storey cast iron building constructed in 1870. It was the first building Judd owned and it served as his New York residence and studio. It is also considered to be the birthplace of “permanent installation” art.

We enjoyed a guided tour of all five floors – with all the works on view remaining as they were installed by Judd prior to his death. Judd spent a great deal of time placing the art and designing the renovation accordingly, consequently the dialogue that has developed between the building and the artworks is still tangible for visitors today.

Each floor featured thought-provoking modern art including work by Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg and John Chamberlain. It was an interesting tour to see where permanent installation art started and how the Judd family lived here surrounded by art in the 1970s … a hallmark of contemporary art and an art time capsule.

Lunch was at Fanelli’s Café, just round the corner from the Judd Foundation. Affordable food in a dark café that opened in 1922 and operated as a speakeasy in the 1920s and 1930s during Prohibition – loved the black and white photos of boxers up on the walls.

On Thursday we were treated to a talk by Judd Tully an Art specialist, critic and journalist. Also based in SoHo, Tully talked about how the New York art scene, galleries, artists and art world work. Art is huge in New York in all forms – as our tour leader Robin Kingston said: “Art really matters in New York, like sport does in Melbourne.”

As Tully explained the ins and outs of how art works in New York, he had a totally different take on how to get noticed, how to succeed, what you have to do and a probably more cynical viewpoint than your average artist … but an interesting and pertinent one nonetheless.

After lunch at Café Gitanes in SoHo – which we visited several times over our stay for its fresh French-themed salads and food, cool atmosphere and friendly staff – we made our way to the New Museum for Contemporary Art for a survey of the work of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.

A still image from one of Pipilotti Rist’s video projections, part of the Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest retrospective.
Born in 1962, Elisabeth Charlotte “Pipilotti” Rist is a visual artist who works with video, film, and moving images – which are often displayed as projections. Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest was truly an amazing and mind blowing exhibition … from laying back on beds to view a projection of underwater photography sloshing on the ceiling … to more videos of lights and hanging lights in a light-filled room that constantly changed colour … I was captivated. I ended up watching the video projection from the bed three times as it was soothing, meditative and soulful to watch.

And suddenly, just like that, we reached the final day of our School of Art Study Tour of New York … our day trip to Dia Beacon.

Occupying a former Nabisco box printing factory on the banks of the Hudson River in Beacon in Upstate New York, Dia Beacon presents a collection of art from the 1960s to now. The 1929 building was adapted to create a 21st century museum, an appealing site for contemporary art with more than 34,000 square feet of skylights. The skylights provide wonderful natural light and establish Dia Beacon as a “daylight museum” – a truly amazing space for huge works of art.

But first, we had to get there … meeting at Grand Central Station at 8.15am was an order from our extremely well organised and knowledgeable tour leader, getting on the train to Beacon and watching the Hudson River glide by was fun, and the walk to the museum on a cold bright morning was pleasant … but it didn’t prepare me for what was ahead … Dia Beacon blew me away.

From Michael Heizer’s deep, unfathomable and sometimes sad impressions, to Robert Smithwood’s jagged glass sculpture of the lost city of Atlantis; from Dan Flavin’s stunning light installations, to Richard Serra’s huge rusty iron sculptures; from Louise Lawler’s audio recording of bird calls to more of Agnes Martin’s subdued, haunting paintings … Dia Beacon did not disappoint.

At one time during the day, I sat in a spacious white room surrounded by the grey glass reflective panels of Gerhard Richter and thought about how astonishing Dia Beacon was and how lucky I was to be part of this remarkable study tour.

I headed back to the reception and café for lunch … then suddenly pandemonium broke out. Someone had spotted the actor Chris Noth, aka Mr Big from Sex and the City, and there was a wild goose chase by the art students to find him. I didn’t see Mr Big … a shame … but I did see some astonishing art in an amazing space.

After Dia Beacon in the fading afternoon light, we walked in the cold winter air for 20 minutes to downtown Beacon to visit artist Melissa McGill in her studio.

McGill does amazing work in the local landscape around Beacon – her latest work, Constellation, was three years in the making. A large-scale public art project 50 miles north of New York, Constellation also takes into account beliefs of the indigenous/Native Americans of the area, of Opi Temakan, the “White Road” or “Milky Way” connecting our world with the next. Every evening as the sun goes down, starry points of light emerge one by one with the stars of the night sky around a castle ruin on an abandoned island.

Hearing McGill talk about her work, watching multi-media about Constellation and seeing other projects and artwork in her studio was a real treat at the end of Week 2 of the tour.

The very cold walk back to Beacon station to wait for our train to NYC was bracing and a bit sad too. An 80 minute train ride brought us back to Grand Central Station, where a large group of us had dinner at the Grand Central Oyster Bar … oysters and seafood from California and Washington State to Maine, Nova Scotia and Long Island … absolute yum to finish up the last day of the study tour.

Grand Central Station, New York – trains and oyster bar!

A smaller group of us met up again on Saturday morning for breakfast at the famous Balthazar restaurant in SoHo … another classic New York experience. After that a bit more shopping – Century 21, Nordstrom Rack, MOMA SoHo outlet, Chelsea Markets; lots more sightseeing – Staten Island Ferry, Statue of Liberty, 5th Avenue (again), the Rolling Stones Exhibitionism retrospective; and trying to fit far too much in to the last weekend … we finally boarded the plane back to Melbourne on Monday.

I didn’t want the art, the study tour, or New York to end. I loved every minute of the trip, the art, the tour, the cocktails, the food, the endless walking and pounding the pavements, the iconic buildings and more. I can’t wait to get back for more of the same … bring on NY trip 2.0!

P.S. All the gallery shops were excellent for books on art, books on everything, as well as small gifts, unique and quirky souvenirs. The MOMA outlet shop in SoHo is particularly good for cool ideas for gifts and stuff to use on your trip.

The School of Art Study Tour 2016 took place in November/December 2016, this blog post is about Week 2 of the tour.

Photos by Deborah Sippitts