A new study has found that food insecurity is linked to poorer mental health and specific psychosocial stressors.
The new study finds that food insecurity (FI) — which affects nearly 795 million people worldwide — may be a key contributor to common mental disorders through several different mechanisms.
First, by generating uncertainty over the ability to maintain food supplies or to acquire sufficient food in the future, FI can provoke a stress response that may contribute to anxiety and depression. And getting food in socially unacceptable ways can induce feelings of alienation, powerlessness, shame, and guilt that are associated with depression.
FI may also magnify socioeconomic disparities within households and communities that could increase cultural sensitivities and influence overall mental well-being.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity means that a household’s economic and social conditions make access to adequate food limited or uncertain — and can lead to hunger.
The study was conducted by Andrew D. Jones, Ph.D., of the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. He used data from the 2014 Gallup World Poll (GWP). FI data were available for 147,826 individuals across 11 world regions encompassing 149 countries. The extent of FI ranged from 18.3 percent in East Asia to 76.1 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the data.
Mental health status was determined using the Negative Experience Index (NEI) and the Positive Experience Index (PEI), two five-question surveys that examine topics such as pain, sadness, enjoyment, feelings of respect, and other factors. Data for the mental health indices were available for 152,696 individuals, Jones noted.
The PEI was highest in Latin America and the Caribbean region (79.4) and lowest in Russia and the Caucasus (59.2), while the NEI was lowest in Central Asia (17.4) and highest in the Middle East and North Africa region (34.9).
Jones found that FI was associated with poorer mental health status in a dose-response fashion, comparing NEI vs. FI for multiple age ranges. An inverse effect was found for PEI vs. FI data.
The consistent dose-response trend suggests a causal association between FI and mental health status, according to Jones.
“This trend suggests that the psychosocial stressors that underlie the mental health indices examined may be amplified with increasing FI,” he said. “For example, anxiety related to one’s ability to acquire sufficient food in the future may be provoked even under conditions of mild FI, and is likely to increase with moderate and severe FI. Alternatively, multiple pathways from FI to poorer mental health may be invoked with increasing severity of FI.
“Under conditions of more severe FI, for example, individuals may resort to acquiring food in socially unacceptable ways as a coping strategy. The feelings of shame and guilt associated with this behavior could compound pre-existing anxiety precipitated by mild FI to yield even poorer mental health conditions.”
Jones acknowledges the possibility that the direction of the association between FI and mental health status could be the reverse — that poor mental health could drive FI.
He notes, however, that this is the first study to carry out a global analysis of this association and so further research is needed.
“Developing robust monitoring systems and strengthening the measurement of both FI and mental health to more comprehensively understand their relation across contexts may help to inform interventions that can effectively address the mental health consequences of FI,” he concluded.
The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.