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Take A Stand Against Sitting January 10, 2013

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Easy As Pie, Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Obesity.
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Exercise is good – you probably already know that, don’t you? So it makes sense that people who have jobs involving lots of sitting might not be getting enough. What’s the solution? According to exercise expert John Buckley from the University of Chester, we should all stand up more. Dr Buckley explains:

It’s little changes in behaviour…that can add up to make quite a big difference to your health.

Dr Buckley likes to practice what he preaches. Check him out standing straight as he works on his laptop!

Jump Up!

A mere three hours a day of standing can burn off 8lbs (3.6kg) of fat each year. Dr Buckley points out that between working at a desk, sitting in a car and perching in front of the television, people are far too sedentary – meaning they’re way too inactive.

Fortunately, there are some neat desks designed to allow you to stand while you’re working. So for adults, there are no more excuses if you’re stuck at a desk all day.

What About Kids In School?

If you’re in school, it’s a bit trickier because of the standard desks. Plus, your teacher will probably think you’re standing to answer questions. Instead, you can fight inactivity by making sure you get plenty of movement during lunch and breaks. Try kicking around a ball on the field. If walking to school is an option, it’s good exercise and also a great way to shake off the sleep cobwebs for the day.

I bet there are many more ways to stay fit if you’re often at a desk. Tell me – how do you stay active?

Too Young And Too Much June 19, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Alcohol and Illegal Drugs, Brain Power, Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Think About It.
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One drink.  Two drinks.  Three drinks….seven drinks.  Does this sound like you each weekend?  It isn’t news that teens can be binge drinkers.  Even the wicked hangover the next day isn’t necessarily enough to stop teens – or adults – from going wild on booze.  But a new study suggests that binge drinking has some effects on teens that we won’t necessarily see in adults.  To understand what researchers discovered, we have to delve into the brain.  The monkey brain, that is.

Binge drinkers consume lots of alcohol in a short period of time with the aim of getting drunk. Does this sound like you or someone you know?

Lasting Brain Damage

To find out what binge drinking does to the brain, a group of researchers led by Chitra Mandyam of the Scripps Research Institute in California looked at how the drinking affected normal nerve cell development in the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for long-term memory.  They used monkeys, an animal with brain development that is very similar to humans.  Their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers gave four adolescent monkeys alcoholic drinks for an hour each day over nearly a year.  A couple of months later, the animals were put down so that researchers could compare their brains to monkeys that had not been given alcohol.  So, what did they learn?

The binge drinking monkeys had 50 to 90 percent fewer stem cells in their hippocampus compared to the other monkeys.  This could leave monkeys struggling with memory and spatial skills, plus loads of other important functions in the brain.

You’re Not Alone

Just how common is binge drinking?  In a European study last year, Britain came in as one of the worst offenders.  More than half of teens had been binge drinking in the last month.  For the United States, around 11 million teens drink and approximately 7 million are binge drinkers.  According to MADD, Canadian statistics are very similar.

Getting Support

Binge drinking is harmful at any age and can hurt adults too.  But this study suggests that its effects in teens can be especially dangerous because of teens’ brains being quite vulnerable during these years.  Fortunately, there are ways to get confidential help, whether it’s through a doctor, substance abuse centre or even a counsellor at school.  If you feel like your drinking is a problem or you’re worried about someone you know, talk to a trusted adult.

Genetic Engineering 101 June 9, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Diseases, Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Science in the Media, Technology, Think About It.
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Nick Kim – Genetic Engineering Cartoon

Credit: Nick Kim.

While the cartoon above by one of my favorite cartoonists – Nick Kim – might suggest I’m against the concept of genetic engineering, that isn’t exactly accurate. I’m more a fan of cautious progress, which means that I think we need to be careful about using this technology. The cartoon is a goofy one because it exaggerates some of the real concerns about genetic engineering. You might be wondering what those concerns are? Well, read on!

A Little Primer On Genetic Engineering

I figured it would be cool to give a brief primer on all of this genetic engineering stuff for those who have heard the term but maybe still aren’t too sure exactly what it means! First, think about your genes. Your genes direct lots of neat traits about you such as your eye and hair color. Genetic engineering works to meddle with the genes in an organism, which allows for control over that organism’s traits. You’re maybe thinking about this concept for humans, but the applications for genetic engineering are really diverse.

Some Potentially Good Stuff

With genetic engineering, there are some important benefits but there are also some aspects that concern scientists, researchers and many members of the public. There are even scenarios that are particularly worrisome and the cartoon above is an extreme representation of one of these consequences. But first, let’s check out some of the positive aspects.

Food is one way that genetic engineering can be used to provide benefits for humans. Through genetic engineering, we can create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). One reason scientists create GMOs is to increase the nutritional value of a food. Think about your own diet. Hopefully, you eat lots of different kinds of foods. Even if you don’t, you probably have access to variety – fruits, vegetables, meats and many more.

For a number of countries, the population there is living on a small range of staple foods. This means that they aren’t getting all of the nutrients they need for good health. However, a food such as a carrot can be engineered to have a nutrient it would not normally have or perhaps the nutrient content could be raised. GMOs can also result in fruits and vegetables that are resistant to pests and the poor weather conditions that can reduce the yields for farmers. Not only that, but genetic engineering has applications in medicine and health. Vaccines have been created by this type of technology and synthetic human insulin was developed through genetic engineering.

Uh Oh

Still, the benefits unfortunately don’t come without problems! The creation of GMOs is thought to potentially harm biodiversity, which means that there is less variety of life in the environment. Think about it – if a vegetable is engineered to be tolerant to a herbicide, the herbicide will kill weeds around the vegetable with less impact on the crop. But wait, if nearby animals feed on those weeds, they lose a valuable source of nutrition and are unable to survive. In this way, the biodiversity is harmed.

The Unexpected

Another fear is that GMOs could have unpredictable results. So, this could mean that the food might trigger allergies in a person allergic to nuts even though that person is eating soybeans. How can this happen? If a gene from nuts is inserted into soybeans – perhaps to increase the nutritional value of the soybean, then people who are allergic to nuts would think the soybean is fine to eat. Nope! The gene could prompt changes that trigger an allergic reaction.

Monsters Or Not?

Now, back to that cartoon! Ever seen the scary movie or read the book ‘Frankenstein?’ One of the perceptions of genetic engineering is that it might create a Frankenstein-like organism – a monster that has all sorts of creepy traits. While it’s true that there are issues around genetic engineering and unexpected or uncontrollable results, the comparison to Frankenstein is considered by some people to be a scare tactic that is far from accurately representing the risks of genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is a complicated and controversial subject and you might have your own opinion about whether you support some or all of its applications. As with many types of technology, it is rapidly changing and we’re constantly learning new bits about genetic engineering. Whatever you think about it, try to get involved by learning more from the news, school, friends or your parents. One of the most powerful ways to improve the safety of genetic engineering is to be informed and challenge the stuff that worries us!

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The Not-So-Sweet Side of Sugar Substitutes February 18, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Think About It.
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For people with a sweet tooth who are concerned about calories, artificial sweeteners have seemed to be the ideal answer. Now, however, it’s not looking all that sweet. A new study suggests that artificial sweeteners may actually cause weight gain. For those who have been chugging back diet drinks on a regular basis, the news could be super surprising and upsetting.

Confusing Information

For a lot of people, the news was perplexing. Why? Because there is the idea that by cutting back calories through artificial sweeteners, a person can more easily lose weight. It’s confusing to hear that the opposite may, in fact, be true. So, how does this work? The researchers who conducted the study think that when you experience a sweet taste in your mouth but don’t consume any calories after, it leaves your body craving more food. Scientists at Purdue University in the United States tested out their theory on rats. Their work was published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.

Hello Rats!

Rat First, they gave yogurt to different groups of rats. One group got to chow down on yogurt sweetened with sugar while the other group got to slurp up some yogurt sweetened with saccharin – an artificial sweetener. The rats were given an abundant supply of food. This means that they weren’t in starvation mode, which could have swayed the results because it affects the body’s metabolism and how appetite is regulated. Next, the researchers checked out how each rat reacted to the yogurt.

The Results Are In

Saccharin Based Sweetener The rats who ate the saccharin sweetened yogurt not only ate more calories, but they put on more fat and gained more weight than their friends who ate the yogurt sweetened with sugar. But wait, there’s more! Later on, the rats that were fed the saccharin sweetened yogurt didn’t eat less in an attempt to regulate their weight. This means that the effects of consuming sweeteners could be quite long-lasting.

Getting Inside The Body

If you are like me when I first heard about this study, you might be wondering just what is going on in the human body to cause the rats to eat more. Well, the researchers have a theory about it all. They think one possible reason is that normally, a person who experiences a sweet taste from food gets a metabolism that is all primed and revved up for a high-calorie, sweet and heavy meal. Instead, the consumption of an artificial sweetener can leave the body very confused as it asks: Where is my meal? Without the arrival of food, the body then has difficulty regulating appetite later on when other food is around.

Still, there are some studies showing that artificial sweeteners can help people lose weight. We definitely will need to see more research on this one. For now, I still say that a treat here and there with real sugar is delicious and works nicely in a healthy diet that incorporates a lot of different, nutritious and yummy foods. On that note, I think those little rats have had enough yogurt for now. I’m off to have a bowl of yogurt and fruit!

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Meddling With Carrots January 16, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Think About It.
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A new ‘supercarrot’ has been created by scientists in the United States. Why is it considered so super? It has been genetically engineered to provide more calcium. In this case, a gene in the carrot is modified, so that the calcium can better cross over the plant membranes. Scientists hope that including the carrot in the average diet could help to prevent diseases related to poor calcium intake, such as osteoporosis.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and included team member Kendal Hirschi of the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. Hirschi hopes that the carrot may eventually provide a more nutritious way to obtain enough quantities of calcium each day.

Comparing The Old Versus The New

A person consuming the new carrot would absorb 41 percent more calcium than someone eating a standard carrot. The recommended calcium allowances vary from one country’s guidelines to another, but generally 1000 to 1500 mg is recommended, depending on your age. Dairy products are commonly suggested as a good source of calcium but unfortunately, many people are allergic to them or perhaps choose to avoid them for other reasons such as vegetarianism.

It’s Not Without Controversy

There is still a lot of controversy around genetically engineered foods. Many people consider it wrong to ‘mess with nature,’ and they cite worries about long-term effects, particularly because the technology is still relatively new. Others believe that packing more vitamin and mineral punch into certain foods can help ensure people obtain the daily recommended allowances of vitamins and minerals. There is also support for genetically engineered foods in terms of increasing the nutritional value of the foods that are dominant in the diets of people in developing countries. It’s so important to eat a varied diet to get all the nutrients you need but when you factor in poverty and food shortages, it could make a difference if a staple food is engineered to provide greater nutrition.

At the same time, our world has plenty of food but it’s poorly distributed. Some people against genetically engineered foods believe that we should focus on finding ways to ensure everyone has access to a wide range of foods, instead of tampering with the foods to change their nutritional value. Either way, a lot more research will have to happen before this ‘supercarrot’ becomes a reality. The fear of Frankenstein-like foods is not a completely unfounded one. While the idea behind genetic engineering is potentially beneficial, we have to make sure the reality is one we can all handle and live with!

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