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The mental health effects of food insecurity

Human beings are like any other living and growing thing. Trauma, deprivation, and insecurity will stunt our development and twist our mental well-being as surely as it would any other plant or animal. One of the most consistent and terrifying forms of deprivation found in our modern world is food insecurity. It’s far more common than many may be aware, and it has profound and long-lasting effects on those who are unfortunate enough to experience it.

What's worse, in a world of cheap processed food, high in preservatives, and low in nutrition, the most food-insecure people often eat the least nutritious food. This slough of poor dietary options leads to profound physical and mental stresses, leaving the most malnourished people in our society paradoxically burdened and overweight. This terrible situation must be solved on both the largest and the smallest scales.

The mental health effects of food insecurity are no small problem

A recent CDC study on food insecurity in America found that food insecurity is associated with a 257% higher risk of anxiety and a 253% higher risk of depression. Losing a job during the pandemic is associated with a 32% increase in risk for anxiety and a 27% increase in risk for depression.

These are not small numbers. The truth is that when a person cannot get enough nutritive food to eat, they’ll almost always experience feelings of profound despair. This is even more true when they have children or other loved ones to care for. Hunger is relentless, exhausting, and humiliating. It’s something that no human being should go through, and the people going through it are more painfully aware of this than anyone.

Those experiencing food insecurity have very reasonable emotions of abandonment and betrayal relating to the people around them, and these feelings naturally bring with them the suspicion that the person deserves to be abandoned and betrayed—in other words, internalizing the neglect and negativity that they experience. It is a lucky person indeed who can pull themselves out of food insecurity, but the trauma that comes with it can linger for the remainder of their lives. The deleterious effects of food insecurity on children are some of the most concerning, as malnutrition during the developmental years can lead to a lifetime of serious problems.

The links between food insecurity and psychological distress are unmistakably clear

Again, there is absolutely no doubt that food insecurity is directly linked with any number of mental stresses and traumas. The USDA points out that food security is not only the lack of food at any given time, but the “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet,” as well as “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

This leads to psychological distress, chronic disease, and serious discontent among the population. This is a phenomenon that can and has been studied at nearly every point in human history. The amount of food insecurity in a population is directly tied to how much stress the population is under, and under extreme circumstances, where food insecurity and instability have become endemic over a long period, certain predictable mass psychological deformations will occur. The seriousness of this process cannot be overstated it can’t even be accurately described without sounding hyperbolic.

What can be done about food insecurity?

It is reasonable to say that everything that can be done is being done on the largest scale, and it’s still not enough. On a personal level, there’s nothing to say except that you must do what you can to not experience it. There are times when self-care is profoundly necessary, and a consistent supply of healthy, nutritious food is one of them. It is difficult to fight temptation or reason clearly when hungry. The temper is closer to the surface, and the ability to roll with life's problems is decreased. This is true even for those who can only find poor-quality food to eat; though their bellies may be full, their bodies are still starving from lack of vitamins and nutrients.

Those who wish to establish positive habits in their life and move beyond self-destructive and negative behaviors must find enough to eat and make sure that what they eat is good.

After all, earning one's daily bread is one of the basic tenets of adult life, of which very few will ever truly move beyond. It is not until we become fully confident and competent within this task that we can begin to heal ourselves and move forward confidently in the world around us. It is fundamental to human life.


Sources - The association between food insecurity and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic - Food insecurity and hunger: A review of the effects on children’s health and behavior - Association Between Food Insecurity and Serious Psychological Distress Among Hispanic Adults Living in Poverty - Food Insecurity - North Carolina Rehab and Addiction Resources - Food Insecurity and Psychological Distress: A Review of the Recent Literature

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