Can Hunger Contribute to Mental Illness?

Food insecurity is often associated with many physical health conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes. You may also be surprised to know that a lack of nutritious food can impact mental health. Many researchers have started to examine the relationship between food security and mental health to see what the connection is between the two.

Higher Risk of Depression
In a study of over 3,500 low-income men and women, food insecurity was positively associated with depression. Researchers found that as the severity of food insecurity increased, the number of reported depressive symptoms increased. Those with very low food security had three times higher odds of depression when compared to those who were food secure.

Higher Risk of Suicide
Food insecurity has specifically been linked with suicidal ideation in a recent study of more than 5,000 Canadian adults. Compared to those who were food secure, those who were moderately food insecure had a 32 percent increased odds of reporting that they seriously considered committing suicide in the last 12 months; those who were severely food insecure had a 77 percent increase in the odds of suicidal ideation.  Other studies with different demographics have found a similar association between food insecurity and mental health.

Mothers and Mental Health
Single mothers are a particularly vulnerable population and experience food insecurity at disproportionately higher rates than the general population. According to Children’s HealthWatch, food insecure mothers in Boston are almost three times more likely to experience maternal depression when compared to food secure mothers.

Another study that specifically looked at mothers and their pre-school aged children found that as food insecurity increased, mothers had more mental health issues, including major depressive episodes and generalized anxiety disorder. The children in the study even displayed increasing behavior problems as food insecurity increased.

Although they may not be the ones acquiring food for the family, it appears that not having regular access to healthy food is even linked with poorer mental health in kids and teens. When studying a group of teens aged 13-17, researchers found that those who were food insecure had greater odds of having a mood, anxiety, behavior, or substance disorder in the past year. Other studies have found similar results when examining groups of younger kids as well.

Stress on Kids and Teens
There are lots of potential reasons why food insecurity and mental health may be linked. Food insecurity often forces individuals to make stressful decisions, such as choosing between food and paying rent or buying medications. The increased psychological stress may contribute to depression or anxiety.

Food insecurity is a complex issue that often comes along with many other physical, mental, and social concerns. This connection with mental health is one more reason why addressing food insecurity is so important for communities. Although it is still not clear what causes the relationship between food insecurity and mental health, it’s possible that interventions to improve food security in food insecure populations could also improve overall mental health.

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Chloe Plummer, MS, RD, LD, is a clinical dietitian with ProMedica Advocacy and Community Health, and her main passion is promoting childhood and adolescent health and wellness. She has a bachelor of science degree in Health and Sport Studies from Miami University and a master of science degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rush University. Her column, Nutrition at the Table, appears on HealthConnect each month.