How Food Insecurity Affects Physical and Mental Health

How Food Insecurity Affects Physical and Mental Health

While hunger and food insecurity are similar, it’s important to note the difference in the two before understanding its toll on a person’s physical and emotional health. Hunger is a physical sensation of discomfort resulting from the need to eat. Food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food. What’s more, inconsistent access to food is not an issue that is only facing the poorest countries in the world. There are men, women, and children in the U.S. who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or if it’s coming at all. 

The scope of food insecurity and its relation to poverty in America is a part of understanding the problem. The implications of food insecurity go further than the physical, and tend to affect a person’s mental health as well. Though food insecurity touches nearly every demographic, it’s important to understand why children are especially high-risk for the implications of food insecurity. There are solutions to explore in order to help Americans heal from the implications of food insecurity and to prevent it from happening, but really understanding what food insecurity entails is the first step. 

How Food Insecurity Affects Physical & Mental Health
Credit: Flickr

Food insecurity and poverty in America

Food insecurity and poverty are overlapping issues. Because food insecurity is about an entire household’s inability to provide consistent access to food, it’s often related to income issues that result in family members who go without in order to make ends meet. The causes of global poverty may be largely different than the causes of poverty in the U.S., but there are some similarities in both cause and effect. For example, discrimination and social inequality can fuel poverty on a local and worldwide scale, as can the effects of poverty, which include food insecurity, a lack of opportunity, and living in marginalized environments. 

In 2014, 17.4 million U.S. households were food insecure at some point during the year due to a variety of causes related to poverty including income, employment, race, and disability. Food insecurity and poverty go hand in hand in America as well as other nations across the globe. The effects of poverty can even create an achievement gap in education, a lack of health resources in underserved communities, and even more complications with chronic health conditions. 

Physical effects

There are many physical complications associated with poor nutrition that food insecurity can cause. It can contribute to or exacerbate nutritional problems linked to many health conditions and diseases. Poor dietary intake has been linked to many health conditions including:

  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Osteoporosis 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Pregnancy-related complications 
  • Asthma 

… and a whole host of other health problems. Food insecurity includes a lack of food, inconsistent food, and a lack of access to healthy food that is needed to live a healthy life. Because our nutrition intake is so intertwined with our dietary choices, there are a plethora of issues caused by food insecurity both immediately and years down the road.    

Mental health implications

In addition to the many physical health risks associated with food insecurity, the mental health risks are abundant as well. Depression, anxiety, behavioral problems in children, social issues, and stress are some of the mental health complications associated with food insecurity in adults as well as children. Eating, and getting the vitamins and nutrients you need from eating, are some of the most basic necessities of life. Going without this basic need will naturally stress the body, leading to mental health complications. The body produces a stressor called cortisol in your body when you’re hungry, which signals it to eat. If the stressor is prolonged, it has deteriorative properties that can impact a person’s psyche.  

Why children are high-risk

The physical and mental effects of food insecurity can impact people of any age, but children are especially vulnerable to these risks. Children who have been severely undernourished in their first five years of life, and often in utero, can live with challenging results including bodies that are stunted in growth, a susceptibility to illness, and underdeveloped brains. The reason for this is largely because of the absence of proper nutrition during development, and the early age at which children and teens will begin to make connections between nutrition and need. The stress and physical ailments that food insecurity can cause can affect a child’s brain that is not finished developing more than it will affect an adult’s brain.   

For children who battle food insecurity and may already be living in poverty, having more hurdles to navigate can really damage their future. Developmental risks and behavioral problems can put them even more behind in school, making it harder to get out of the cycle of poverty and food insecurity. These issues are complex and interconnected, and children are at a higher risk for complications. 


Exploring solutions 

Food insecurity is not an issue that exists by itself, it’s a complex issue intertwined with poverty. For this reason, the solutions that can help food insecurity and the negative effects associated with it relate to government assistance programs, employment resources, and education programs. This means advocating for WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (Special Needs Accommodation Placement) programs that provide nutritional assistance to low-income women and children. It also means voting to increase minimum wage and supporting programs to help those in low-income areas find work and affordable housing. It means creating programs that help those in poverty further their education to find better jobs. Food insecurity is as much about providing resources that increase opportunity as it is about donating cans of food to the local food bank. 

The physical and mental effects of food insecurity go beyond moments of hunger and expand into a lifetime of hurdles and difficulties, especially for children. Those in poverty who can’t always afford to have consistent and healthy meals on the table for themselves or their family are creating a cycle of health issues that can be hard to escape from. Government assistance programs do what they can to try to bridge the gap for those battling food insecurity, so it’s vital to speak up when those programs are cut, even if your own stomach is full. Poverty and food insecurity affect us all from a community standpoint, so it’s important to take the effects seriously in order to promote change. 

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