Protect children from food insecurity – no

It is easy to imagine the emotional distress of parents and children in families where there is not enough to eat. Especially if it happens regularly. A growing number of studies have shown an association between food insecurity and adverse effects on mental health. Now, new research from McGill University has examined the mental health impacts of food insecurity on parents and children separately. Researchers have found that in families where adults sacrifice their own nutritional needs so that their offspring are fed first, the mental health of both groups is less severely affected. Although he is affected, nevertheless.

The researchers used data from three cycles of the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) between 2007 and 2018 (with around 100,000 respondents in each cycle, of which around a quarter were children or youth). Because family members responded separately to questions about mental health and well-being, as well as food security, it was possible to examine how food insecurity affected parents and children differently.

Protecting children from food insecurity has only a limited effect on their mental health

“While feeding children is known to protect them from malnutrition in the first place, it is unclear how this practice affects family mental health,” says Frank Elgar, lead author of the recent article in the Canadian Journal of Public Health and Professor in the School of Population and Global Health at McGill and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Social Inequalities in Child Health. “We found that, for one in eight households in Canada experiencing food insecurity, the ability to protect children and youth was associated only with reduced risks of mood disorders in young people, although it has also been associated with better mental health outcomes more generally in adults.

There was no evidence to suggest that shielding was associated with reduced risk of anxiety disorder or poor health or poor mental health in young people. Protection aside, the study results clearly show that food insecurity is associated with poor mental health and lower well-being in youth and adults.

“When children and young people are affected by food insecurity during a phase of their brain development, even if their parents do their best to protect them, there is no evidence that this significantly improves their psychological outcomes”, Elgar adds. “These findings underscore the importance of policies that consider both food security and mental health. Food bank people don’t just need food, they may also need mental health support, especially to ensure children and young people are not affected in the long term.

Detailed results

  • About 84.5% of sample households were food secure
  • About 15.5% of sampled households were food insecure to varying degrees (marginal, moderate or severe)
  • The more severe the degree of food insecurity in a household, the lower the level of parental protection of young people and children. (Shielding occurred in about 65% of marginally food insecure households, 34% of moderately food insecure households, and only 11% of severely food insecure households).
  • About 6.3% of households were food insecure and shielding youth and children and about 9.1% were food insecure and no shielding youth.

Comparison of Mental Health of Youth and Adults in Food Secure and Food Insecure Households

  • Youth and children in food-insecure households where youth were not shieldedshowed elevated risks of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, fair or poor mental health, fair or poor general health, and low life satisfaction compared to people living in food secure households.
  • Youth and children in food-insecure households where youth were protectedshowed high risk of only anxiety disorder and fair or poor mental healthand did not differ significantly from youth living in food secure households on other mental health and wellbeing outcomes.
  • Adults in food-insecure households, particularly in unshielded householdsshowed consistently higher risks of poor mental health and wellbeing compared to adults in food secure households.

Comparison of mental health of youth and adults in protected and unprotected households

  • The only significant impact on youth in shielded households compared to unshielded households was a reduced risk of mood disorders. All other mental health risks were similar for youth from protected and unprotected households.
  • Adults had a 22-37% higher risk of mental health impairment if they were unable to protect their children from food insecurity and showed a increased risk of mood disorders.

“Although this study found that protecting children and youth from food insecurity is associated with better psychological outcomes in adults and youth, further work is needed to isolate the costs and benefits of this protective behavior” , adds Elgar.

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