The potential consequences of food insecurity regarding physical and mental health

In 2012, 33.1 million adults in the United States experienced food insecurity[i].  Food insecurity can have wide-ranging detrimental consequences on the physical and mental health of adults, including more vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and seniors.  Lack of access to a nutritious and adequate food supply has implications not only for the development of physical and mental disease, but also behaviors and social skills. 

Physical Health

Food insecurity in adults is associated with a variety of negative physical health outcomes.

  • Food insecure adults between the ages of 18 and 65[ii],[iii],[iv] and seniors over age 65[v] may receive fewer nutrients, which may hinder their ability to live a full and active life.  
  • Food insecurity is associated with lower scores on physical and mental health exams.[vi]
  • Food insecure adults have an increased risk of developing diabetes.[vii],[viii]
  • Food insecurity is associated with a range of chronic illnesses such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and various cardiovascular risk factors.[ix]


Mental Health

Food insecurity in adults has a demonstrated relationship with a number of mental health issues and human behavior problems.

  • Food insecure adults may experience higher levels of aggression and anxiety.[x],[xi]
  • Food insecurity has also been correlated with slower developing social skills. [xii]

Maternal Health

Food insecurity may be detrimental to the health of expectant mothers as it is associated with a range of physical and mental complications.

  • Food insecure mothers may receive fewer nutrients and experience long term physical health problems.[xiii]
  • Food insecure women may be at greater risk of major depression and other mental health problems. [xiv],[xv]


[i] Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., Andrews, M., Singh, A. (2013) Household Food Security in the United States in 2010. USDA ERS.

[ii] Dixon, Winkleby, and Radimer (2001) Dietary intakes and serum nutrients differ between adults from food-insufficient and food- sufficient families: Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988–1994. Journal of Nutrition, 131, 1232–1246.

[iii] McIntyre, Glanville, Raine, Dayle, Anderson, and Battaglia (2003) Do low-income lone mothers compromise their nutrition to feed their children? Canadian Medical Association Journal, 198, 686–691.

[iv] Tarasuk and Beaton (1999) Women’s Dietary Intakes in the Context of Household Food Insecurity. Journal of Nutrition, 129, 672-679.

[v] Ziliak, Gundersen, and Haist (2008) The Causes, Consequences, and Future of Senior Hunger in America. Special Report by the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research for the Meals on Wheels Association of America Foundation. 

[vi] Stuff, Casey, Szeto, Gossett, Robbins, Simpson, Connell, and Bogle (2004) Household Food Insecurity Is Associated with Adult Health Status. Journal of Nutrition, 134, 2330-2335.

[vii] Seligman, Bindman, Vittinghoff, Kanaya, and Kushel (2007) Food Insecurity is Associated with Diabetes Mellitus: Results from the National Health Examination and Nutritional Examination Survey 1999-2002. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22, 1018-1023.

[viii] Nelson, Cunningham, Andersen, Harrison and Gelberg (2001) Is Food Insufficiency Associated with Health Status and Health Care Utilization Among Adults with Diabetes? Journal of General Internal Medicine, 16, 404-411.

[ix] Seligman, Laraia, and Kushel (2009) Food Insecurity Is Associated with Chronic Disease among Low-Income NHANES Participants. Journal of Nutrition, 140, 304-310.

[x] Kleinman, Murphy, Little, Pagano, Wehler, Regal, and Jellinek (1998) Hunger in children in the United States: Potential behavioral and emotional correlates. Pediatrics, 101 (1), e3.

[xi] Slack and Yoo (2005) Food hardship and child behavior problems among low-income children. Social Service Review, 75, 511–536.

[xii] Jyoti, Frongillo, and Jones (2005) Food insecurity affects school children's academic performance, weight gain, and social skills. Journal of Nutrition, 135, 2831–2839.

[xiii] Tarasuk (2001) Household Food Insecurity with Hunger Is Associated with Woman’s Food Intakes, Health and Household Circumstances. Journal of Nutrition, 131, 2670-2676.

[xiv] Heflin, Siefert, and Williams (2005) Food insufficiency and women’s mental health: Findings from a 3-year panel of welfare recipients. Social Science & Medicine, 61, 1971-1982.

[xv] Whitaker, Phillips, and Orzol (2006) Food insecurity and the risks of depression and anxiety in mothers and behavior problems in their pre-school-aged children. Pediatrics, 118, e859–e868.