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.


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


The road to a new treatment for Long QT Syndrome

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Researchers at Nottingham University might have found the answer to developing an alternative treatment for the potentially fatal Long QT syndrome. By using patients skin samples, Professor Chris Denning has successfully produced stem cells, which were then transformed into heart cells. These heart cells contain the genetic predisposition that causes long QT, meaning that the effects of new drugs can be studied in the laboratory. Researchers hope that this technique can be used to help develop new treatments for the syndrome.

Long QT syndrome affects electrical activity within the heart, resulting in the sudden onset of potentially fatal arrhythmias in response to anxiety or exercise. The syndrome is currently treated with beta-blockers, however if medication does not work then a small device known as an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is fitted. Neither treatment path is perfect and both have side-effects, which is why the new research is so important. 

The research, which is backed by the British Heart Foundation and Heart Research UK is still in its infancy but seems promising.  Indications have already shown the heart cells to have the same electrical activity as found in a whole heart.

TED: How to build your creative confidence

Following on from our last post we wanted to share our first TED talk with you.

Credit: TED

TED is a non-profit organisation that shares ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ from three different worlds: Technology, Entertainment and Design. TED invites the brightest and most brilliant minds to ‘give the talk of their lives’ in under 20 minutes. Previous talks have been given by Steve Jobs, Jill Bolte Taylor and Stephen Hawking, on a wide variety of subjects. The talks can be humorous, imaginative, informed and inspiring.

Our pick today is ‘How to build your confidence’ by David Kelley. Kelley co-founded the design giant, IDEO. Although you may not have heard of them, you’ve most probably seen their designs: Apple’s first mouse, Microsoft’s second mouse and even the thumbs up/ down button on Tivo’s remote control. But following a big change in his life, Kelley devoted himself to helping others unlock their creative potential.

Want to know more…

The creativity behind science

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Here at The Science Behind Science, we want more people to get excited about science and we couldn’t think of anything more exciting than sharing the creativity and curiosity of science with you.

Creativity? It’s the phenomenon where something original and worthwhile is developed; it flourishes via imagination and is applied by innovation. Together, creativity and innovation make up the driving forces in scientific and technological advancement.

So to get our creative juices flowing we’re going to have to look at science a little differently. It’s no longer going to be the boring subject once studied in school; it’s the sunrise on the horizon, the complexity in an octopus’ eye, the discovery of new worlds and the hours of research dedicated to destroying cancer.

This is the stuff of science that makes us excited and we hope that we can share it with you. You’ll see more thought provoking posts about the art, thought, travel and ideas behind science.

There’s a scientist within all of us, it’s curious, creative and intelligent – and we hope to inspire it.

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.


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

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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.



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

How do we know that our climate is changing?

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In order to be sure that our climate has changed we need to know what it was like in the past

In recent years there’s been a greater emphasis placed on observing the climate, due to the detrimental effect that its change is having on our environment. But that’s only in recent years, and prior to this there will have been little, if any, observation being conducted on the climate. So how can we be sure that it is in fact changing?

Well it’s lucky for us that some forward-backward thinkers found a way to do it; actually they found quite a few ways.

Due to the interest in conserving our planet and the new technologies available, scientists observing the climate now have an inventory of equipment with which to accurately measure and observe our present climate. There are acronyms like SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interface Device) and SST (sea-surface temperature) being banded around.  Specialised facilities, organisations and even satellites are all closely monitoring parameters on land, at sea and in the atmosphere. But when it comes to collecting climate data from the past (300 years previously) things aren’t quite so simple; a little initiative is necessary, shall we say.

The growth of tree rings are largely affected by temperature and rainfall. We can therefore use growth rate to broadly estimate changes to rainfall or temperature depending on the preferences of the tree. The only problem with this method is that growth is affected by a range of climatic factors so it can be difficult to distinguish between each. This method can also be used with coral as they too have seasonal growth rings that are affected by temperature (faster growth in warmer waters).

The examination of ice cores can be used to reveal air temperatures. By taking samples of ice scientists can examine air bubbles that have become trapped within the layers of snow. It is these air bubbles that show not only temperature but also precipitation, dust transportation and volcanic fall out.

Ocean sediments are made of fossil shells, which accumulate on the seabed as organisms die. A sample of these sediments can be collected using a steel tube, which allow fossils to remain in their chronological order of formation. Analysis reveals what species inhabited the different layers and from that it’s possible to estimate if the water was warm/ cold by the preference and abundance of the species.

Pollen records date back to the Devonian era and provide a unique and unusual insight into our past climate. Pollen is the powder that contains the microgametophytes or the ‘sperm’ of seed plants. Its can remain perfectly preserved during fossilisation as it is protection by its outer sheath, known as the sporopollenin. Even in a fossilised state the tiny pollen grains are identifiable thanks to their distinctive morphology. The abundance and distribution of pollen can be used to estimate temperatures, depending on the plants preferences.

Although there are data gaps and inaccuracies associated with these ‘indirect’ methods of climate measurement, they’re important in giving us something to compare current data with. In some cases this data can be combined with information collected from modern equipment, like Stevenson shelters, weather bouys and satellites.

In order to better estimate how our climate might change in the future, it’s important that we understand changes that have occurred in the past.