A well-nourished population requires that all members of society have access to sufficient amounts of nutritious food. Unfortunately, food insecurity continues to be a staggering problem throughout the world with negative consequences in terms of health and well-being. 

Image Credit: American Society for Nutrition

In the United States, millions of households, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans, lack access to enough food. Children growing up in food insecure households face many challenges such as behavioral problems, lower academic achievement, disrupted social interactions, and poor health. The prevailing belief is that children living in a food insecure environment are at greater risk of undernutrition, not obesity. Although this may be true in some cases, food insecurity and childhood obesity also appear to coexist. 

Because childhood food insecurity may increase obesity risk later in life, it is important to better understand the relationship between food insecurity and children’s obesity, and how it varies by demographic characteristics in the United States.

A recent study published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of Nutrition assessed the relationship between household food insecurity and child adiposity-related outcomes.  This included variables such as body mass index, waist circumference, and diet outcomes. The study, conducted by Dr. Lauren Au (University of California, Nutrition Policy Institute) and colleagues also examined associations by age, sex, and race/ethnicity. Data collected in 2013-2015 from 5138 U.S. schoolchildren ages 4-15 years old from 130 communities in the cross-sectional Healthy Communities Study were analyzed.

Household food insecurity was self-reported using a 2-item screening instrument and dietary intake was assessed using a food frequency questionnaire.  Information on dietary behaviors, physical activity, and demographics was also collected.  To assess adiposity, measurements of children’s weight, height, and waist circumference were taken as well.

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Study results support an association between food-insecure households and measures of adiposity. Children from food-insecure households had high body mass index, waist circumference, greater odds of being classified as overweight or obese, consumed more sugar from sugar-sweetened beverages, and less frequently ate breakfast and dinner with family compared to children from food-secure households. When examined by age groups, significant relationships were observed only for older children, however, results did not differ according to sex or race/ethnicity.

These results suggest that household food insecurity is associated with higher child adiposity-related outcomes and several nutrition behaviors, particularly among older children. Clearly, further research is needed to better understand the complexities of food insecurity, childhood obesity, and future health outcomes.

This research was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Reference Au LE, Zhu SM, Nhan LA, Plank KR, Frongillo EA, Laraia BA, Gurzo K, Ritchie LD.  Household Food Insecurity is Associated with Higher Adiposity among US Schoolchildren Ages 10-15 Years: The Healthy Communities Study. The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 149, Issue 9, September 2019, Pages 1642–1650, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxz108

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Cover photo credit: Child picking strawberries by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash,