Explainer: How food insecurity affects mental health

Explainer: How food insecurity affects mental health

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mental health

Recent conflicts in Palestine, Ukraine and Congo underscore how the persistent uncertainty about the next meal’s source can cause chronic stress, depression, anxiety, and sleep issues.

Nearly 70 per cent of the global population suffering from hunger reside in regions marred by war and violence. Recent conflicts in Palestine, Ukraine and Congo underscore how such situations exacerbate hunger by displacing communities, eradicating sources of income, and derailing national economies. 

Food insecurity, defined as the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life, affects individuals and communities worldwide. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), over 333 million individuals are currently grappling with severe food insecurity, uncertain about the source of their next meal. 

What scientific studies say…

Studies show that individuals facing food insecurity are more prone to reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety. The persistent uncertainty of not having a clear idea of the next meal’s source can contribute to chronic stress, intensifying challenges related to mental health. Further, the disparities have the potential to perpetuate and even amplify mental health gaps over an extended period of time. 

In young adults, research finds that there is a strong connection between food insecurity and adverse mental health and sleep outcomes, encompassing depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and difficulties in both falling and staying asleep. 

Another interesting study conducted in New Zealand suggests that there is a robust correlation between food insecurity and psychological distress, irrespective of socioeconomic variables, for both males and females. However, the study indicates subtle indications of a slightly more pronounced association in females. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the association between food insecurity and mental health outcomes, particularly among low-income groups across the world, was palpable. According to a study conducted in the United States, the relative risk of mental illness from being food insecure was almost three-fold that of losing a job during the pandemic. 

Way forward 

Food insecurity is a pervasive issue with far-reaching consequences. These research findings are important for public health and policy interventions. Comprehensive anti-hunger initiatives should incorporate mental health support services, acknowledging the deep-seated influence of food insecurity on emotional wellbeing. 

Recognising this connection, fostering awareness, and backing initiatives that tackle hunger and mental health can propel us towards creating a healthier world.