Obesity & Income

The highest rates of obesity in the United States are found amongst lower-income groups

The highest rates of obesity in the United States are found amongst lower-income groups

For one moment put aside genetics, medical conditions  and a lack of physical exercise to just imagine that your income could predispose you to become obese. It’s a frightening thought that in a well educated and resourceful country, residents might be physiologically doomed just by their occupying a certain socioeconomic position.

In the United States, the highest rates of obesity and diabetes are found within lower-income groups. Why? The plausible explanation is because of a lack of money. Unhealthy foods are not only cheap but are extremely energy-dense; this means that less of them are needed to produce the same energy compared to healthy foods. However, studies have proved these energy-dense foods to be less satiating than fresh nutritious foods, resulting in passive overeating and a higher risk of obesity.

Fast food, sweets, desserts and sweetened soft drinks have continuously been linked to obesity, so why are they still consumed, and on a massive scale? Unhealthy and processed foods are widespread for three reasons: they’re inexpensive, tasty and convenient. Healthy and nutritious foods such as fresh meats & fish, fruits and vegetables can be expensive to purchase and often difficult to source.

The consumption of unhealthy foods has also been linked to individual factors such as emotional state, personality and stress levels, however the underlying problem is a far more universal one.  Economics is at the heart of the obesity-poverty relationship for two main reasons. Firstly, because low-income groups predominantly buy cheap and concentrated forms of energy i.e. fat and sugar which contribute to obesity. Secondly, as low-income groups are also more likely to reside within areas with less access to fresh and healthy produce.

The current solution is to inform and encourage the eating of healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables. There has been no attempt to address the serious and underlying issue that greatly contributes to higher rates of obesity: cost. What use is the knowledge that people should eat healthier, if they cannot afford to do so?

Perhaps focus should be moved towards changing the economy of obesity given that the evidence has suggests obesity rates do in fact conform to a socioeconomic gradient.  A more effective solution to tackle the growing problem of obesity would be the widespread implementation of policies that make healthy foods affordable and accessible to all consumers.

How? Agricultural development, government subsidiaries, consumer education and price regulation are just a few ideas.

References:

Drewnowski, A &Darmon, N. (2005) The economics of obesity: dietary energy density and energy cost. American Journal Clinical Nutrition 82: 1 265S-273S

What makes us happy?

'Mind training' is nurtures the inner conditions for happiness

‘Mind training’ nurtures our inner conditions for happiness

The search for happiness can be a life-long quest, but why? We’ve all experienced happiness so why do so many of us struggle to find it? Perhaps we’re looking in the wrong places.

If happiness is something we are going to seek our entire lives then we better know exactly what it is. However, many people don’t and subsequently turn their backs on it time and time again. There are hundreds of definitions, but quite simply happiness is the sensation of feeling good; it can range from contentment to deep fulfilment. Now we know what happiness is, how can we find out what makes us happy?

The answer is uncovered by modern brain psychology, which enables researchers to objectively measure happiness. By attaching electrodes to the scalp, it is possible to measure electrical activity in different parts of the brain. This activity is monitored whilst someone is shown images designed to provoke emotions of happiness.

What has been found time and again is an association between the person reporting feelings of happiness and an increase in the electrical activity in the left front of the brain. The opposite is true of unhappiness; when feelings of unhappiness are reported the right front side of the brain saw more electrical activity. This shows the presence of a direct neuronal connection with our emotions, meaning that happiness can be objectively monitored and observed.

Now that we have a scientific method by which we can measure happiness, we have only to tackle  the matter of what makes us happy. The complex truth is that a lot of things do. The ancient and philosophical belief is that true happiness comes from within and that attachments to the material world are ultimately meaningless in the quest for happiness. The other belief is that happiness is created and affected by our external circumstances. The probability is that both of these rather opposing positions are true and both contribute to happiness.

External happiness

Although the happiness we gain from our external circumstances is perhaps superficial and often short lived, it is never the less, still happiness. One of the main things we believe will bring us happiness is money; the ability to pay off debts, live lavishly and provide for our family surely ensures happiness. But it’s not that simple. When it comes to money, our happiness is affected by two things; social comparisons (i.e. how much money the people around have compared to you) and habituation (i.e. the lifestyle you are used to getting). If your colleague gets a pay rise and still earn less than you then your happiness is not likely to be affected but if they get a pay rise and begin to earn more than you, then your happiness might decrease. This demonstrates why external circumstances cannot gaurentee long-term pleasure. So we look now, to within.

Internal happiness

A Ted talk given by Matthieu Ricard, former biochemist turned Buddhist monk explains perfectly how our internal state can determine our happiness, or wellbeing. Ricard explains that most of us search for happiness ‘outside’; we believe that we can collect the perfect conditions to make happiness. This might illustrate why we have a constant desire to buy new things, things that we believe can create happiness, and they do, for a while. As Ricard shows we could be in a physical paradise, surrounded by all the external things we desire and still not be happy. This is ultimately because our control over the external world is temporary and extremely limited. So we need to focus on what we can control; our minds.

By using what Ricard calls ‘mind training’ we can nurture the inner conditions that will enable our happiness. We do this when we are experiencing a bad or negative emotion, like anger; by consciously focusing on the feeling we can learn to dissolve it. Over time the emotion will occur less and less, until eventually it will become only a fleeting feeling. This ability to fully embrace our positive state leads to true happiness.

References:

Haidt, J (2006) The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Basic Books.

Richard, L (2011) Happiness: Lessons from a new science. Penguin.

Ted talk: http://www.ted.com/playlists/4/what_makes_us_happy.html

30-minute stem cell breakthrough

Credit: Pixabay

Stem cell breakthrough could pave the way on the yellow brick road to personalised medicine

A new and novel method of creating stem cells could revolutionise the future of ‘personalised medicine’. A team of Japanese scientists created stem cells by submerging blood cells in a weak acidic solution. This new method is a cheaper, faster and more effective way of creating the highly sought after cells.

Stem cells are integral to bodily repair as they alone have the capability to differentiate into specialised cells; a phenomenon known as pluripotency. For this reason they’ve formed the bases of regenerative medicine, but the methods of creating these cells have proved problematic.

Until now, there were only two ways of obtaining stem cells. The first was to harvest them from embryos, but this was fraught with ethical implications. The second method was to genetically manipulate adult cells however, serious issues were raised regarding the safety of these genetically modified cells.

The new phenomenon known as, stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) faces none of these problems and is inherently simple. Once submerged in the acidic solution it took just 30 minutes before the blood cells returned to their original embryonic state. The discovery was make by Haruko Obokata, a young stem-cell biologist who had been working on the technique at the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Kobe for five years.

In addition to blood cells, the researchers have already successfully created stem cells from brain, muscle, fat, lung, liver and bone-marrow tissue in mice. The technique requires no highly specialised equipment and therefore has the potential to be carried out in a wider number of labs.

The discovery of a method that could safely and ethically create stem cells has long been awaited. It paves the way for ‘personalised medicine’, where doctors would be able to create stem cells using a patients blood or tissue sample. These ‘personalised cells’ would then be reintroduced back into the patient to allow tissue repair, without the fear of rejection.

 

Reference:

Obokata, H et al (2014) Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency. Nature 505, 641–647.

How do Chameleons change colour?

Credit: Pixabay

A ballistic tongue as long as its body, independently moving eyes capable of 360° vision and claws perfectly adapted to surviving in an arboreal habitat; these are the features that constitute the spectacle that is the chameleon. But the most astonishing feature is surely the capability to instantly transform its appearance. Whether in response to its environment or for use in communication, the chameleon’s ability to change colour is a skill boasted by only a few other species in the animal kingdom.

Located in the dermis and epidermis is the cell responsible for the chameleon’s famed super-power: the chromatophore. Chromatophores are specialised cells that contain pigments in their cytoplasm. These pigments produce colours by reflecting and absorbing wavelengths of light. A chameleon has three types of chromatophores, which are arranged in layers and which each produce different colours. Melanophores lie deepest in the skin and contain black pigments, iridophores found above create blue colours and the top most chromatophores are xanthophores, which make red and yellow colours.

The chameleon changes its colour by altering the concentration and movement of the pigments; the intensity of colour depends on the amount of aggregation/dispersal of the pigments. These colour changes are rapid as the chromatophores are under direct neural control. This quick reaction time is important in social situations where chameleons use their colours to communicate with one another. Animal communication is vaguely defined as a transfer of information that causes a change to the receiver’s present or future actions. So it’s easy to see why precise and correct signalling is imperative, especially when information regarding mating or territory is being exchanged.

The importance of chameleon’s colouration in social signalling was demonstrated by a study published in 2008. The paper published in PLoS Biology reported that colour changes in chameleons evolved as a result of social signalling rather than as a method of crypsis against predators. The study found that evolutionary shifts for colour change in the southern African dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion spp.) were associated with increasingly conspicuous signals used in male contests and courtship. Like other species that develop conspecific signals, the chameleon uses coloration as an effective method to communicate with its intended audience, whilst not revealing itself to predators.
It’s not only chameleons that can change colour; other vertebrates, like fish and invertebrates like squid and numerous crustaceans also have the ability. In each organism the technique has been perfected and enhanced in order to increase the chances of survival.

References:

Anderson  (2004). Historic and Contemporary Theories on Chameleon Color Change. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, http://www.chameleonnews.com/04NovAndersonColor.html

Fox & Moussalli (2008) Selection for Social Signalling Drives the Evolution of Chameleon Colour Change. PLoS Biol
http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0060025

Nilsson (1983) Autonomic Nerve Function in the Vertebrates Zoophysiology
http://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-642-81974-2

Schubert (2013) Chroma + Phy – A Living Wearable Connecting Humans and Their Environment. Biomimetic and Biohybrid Systemshttp://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-39802-5_61

 

One step closer to a polio-free world

The 13th of January was a momentous day for India as the nation celebrated its third-year of being polio-free. The disease, which mainly affects children under the age of five was eradicated as a result of India’s successful immunisation program. The achievement is a mile-stone in the global battle against polio, which is remains endemic in three countries.

Three years might seem an odd anniversary for India to pay dividence too, but it marks the date after which the country can become officially polio-free. The power to award a region polio-free status belongs to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Set to convene in March, the WHO will decide if South-East-Asia has met with strict criteria to qualify as polio-free. The criteria, in short is as follows: “all countries in the Region need to not register a case of wild polio for 3 years in the presence of high quality surveillance”. If the met then India will join America, Western Pacific and  Europe, the only other regions to have achieved the status.

Polio still remains endemic in Pakistan, Afganistan and Nigeria where problems such as political instability and poor sanitation impede total eradication. The problem is that these countries act as hotbeds from which infection can spread. This would prove disastrous for neighbouring countries whose populations aren’t sufficiently vaccinated. This is why India has announced plans to carry out 6 more polio campaigns in 2014 and 2015.

In order to ensure that advances continue to be made in the fight against polio, a rigorous approach must be adopted with regards to vaccinating populations at risk.