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Food Insufficiency During the Pandemic Linked to Depression, Anxiety

A new research shows rise in food insufficiency during the pandemic is linked to worsened mental health. Receipt of free groceries or meals alleviated the mental health burden.

Depression and anxiety are the leading causes of morbidity and morbid conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.

A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that food insufficiency during pandemic significantly deteriorated mental health and increased depression and anxiety (Nagata, Ganson, et al. 2021). 

COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous suffering to the global human community. Other than the increasing number of daily deaths and active cases, lockdown, social distancing, and stay-home-order have prompted a tremendous impact on people’s mental health in almost every country.

Lack of effective treatment, uncertainty about when would stop the spread of the virus, anti-vaccine propaganda on social media are also found to be responsible for spin increasing psychological stress.

Financial loss interrupted daily activities, the inability to engage in social activities, and constant news exposure are factors that affected mental health.

In the new study, a group of scientists from the USA, Canada, and the UK has shown that a 25% rise in food insufficiency in the USA is linked with worsening mental conditions. They also found that receiving free groceries or meals alleviated the mental health burden of food insufficiency.

Previous studies have shown that food insecurity—food insufficiency, inability to purchase food with good nutritional value, uncertainty in obtaining food—has a strong association with depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders (Arenas, Thomas et al. 2019).

Micronutrient deficiency, one of the leading causes of food insufficiency, may lead to weakened host defenses and immunologic decline. Consuming calorie-packed low-cost foods—an impact of food insecurity—can lead to obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

These morbid conditions, such as weakened host defenses, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, are associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness.

In the study, the researchers collected the cross-sectional data from June 11 to June 16, 2020, from 63,674 participants of the US Census Household Pulse Survey, and used Multiple Poisson Regression models to estimate if there was any association between deteriorated mental health and food insufficiency.

They found that food insufficiency was independently associated with all symptoms of mental health. In the week before completing the survey, 65% of Americans reported anxiety symptoms, and 56% reported depressive symptoms.

food insufficency pandemic depression

Those who had enough to eat during the same period reported anxiety with 63% of Americans compared to 89% who did not have enough food to eat. Similarly, 52% of food-sufficient Americans reported depressive symptoms compared to 88% of food-insufficient Americans.

Among the participants, Black and Latino Americans had over twice the risk of food insufficiency compared to White Americans—the researchers also found.

They also confirmed that the individuals who received free groceries or meals had alleviated some of the mental health burdens of food insufficiency.

“Hunger, exhaustion, and worrying about not getting enough food to eat may worsen depression and anxiety symptoms,” said Jason Nagata, MD, MSc, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and lead author on the study. “Many of these individuals have experienced job loss and higher rates of poverty during the pandemic.

“Policymakers should expand benefits and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other programs to address both food insecurity and mental health,” said Kyle Ganson, Ph.D., MSW, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, a co-author of the study.

Related Publication and Further Readings

Nagata, J. M., K. T. Ganson, et al. (2021). “Food Insufficiency and Mental Health in the U.S. During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Am J Prev Med 60(4): 453-461.

Arenas, D. J., A. Thomas, et al. (2019). “A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Depression, Anxiety, and Sleep Disorders in US Adults with Food Insecurity.” J Gen Intern Med 34(12): 2874-2882.


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