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The Link Between Food Insecurity and Mental Health

Research shows a lack of affordable food leads to poorer mental health.

Monet/Adobe Stock
Source: Monet/Adobe Stock

Unemployment rates rose to more than 14 percent in April this year with more than 23 million Americans without work when the U.S. shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19. Since economic activity in the U.S. has resumed, millions have returned to their old jobs or found new ones. But there are still more than 11 million Americans unemployed — more than double than were unemployed in February before COVID-19 spread widely in the U.S.

With rising unemployment comes increased food insecurity, the lack of reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

Although concrete numbers aren’t yet available for 2020, hunger-relief organizations estimate that 17 million people in the U.S. could become food insecure because of the pandemic, bringing the total to more than 54 million people in the country.

Food security carries serious implications. A large body of evidence demonstrates food insecurity leads to obesity among children and adults, typically because healthier foods are more expensive and can be more difficult to access, especially for low-income individuals who do not live close to an affordable grocery store. Research shows it is associated with preventable, life-threatening diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and stroke. In early childhood, it is associated with poor health, chronic illness, and special needs.

Beyond the physical implications, there is clear evidence that food insecurity also takes a toll on mental health — especially the mental health of young people.

A 2012 study found food insecurity increased the chance of mood, anxiety, behavior, and substance use disorders in teenagers. Even when statistically factoring out other consequences of extreme poverty, food insecurity led to a 14 percent increase in the risk of mental health disorders. A 2016 study found that food insecurity leads to depression and thoughts of suicide among young people.

A 2019 literature review published last year found food insecurity may lead to or exacerbate symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And a systematic review found that food insecurity leads to behavioral and academic problems among youth.

Earlier this year, a meta-analysis of 19 studies with more than 370,000 participants across the globe found that food insecurity significantly increases the risk of depression and stress, especially for men and people older than 65. In addition, participants living in North America were more likely to experience stress and anxiety as a result of food insecurity compared to people living in other parts of the world.

The evidence is dire, but there is some good news. There is clear evidence that community-based resources, such as food pantries, as well as national programs that provide cash and food subsidies, are helpful in addressing food insecurity.

The take-home message: Food insecurity is a serious problem in the United States this year because of the economic impact of COVID-19. As a result, more families than ever are at risk for both physical and mental health problems. There are ways to address this enormous problem. Providing local resources, such as food pantries and national programs that provide subsidies to struggling families, are both effective ways to help make sure that everyone has access to nutritious food.

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