Shielding children from food insecurity – provides no protection from psychological problems
Large-scale Canadian study also suggests mental health of adults suffers when unable to shield children
It’s easy to imagine the emotional distress of both parents and children in families where there isn’t enough to eat. Especially if it happens regularly. An increasing number of studies have shown an association between food insecurity and adverse mental health outcomes. Now, new research from McGill University has looked at the impacts of food insecurity on the mental health of both parents and children separately. The researchers 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 it is affected, nevertheless.
The researchers used data from three cycles of the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) between 2007-2018 (with about 100,000 respondents in each cycle, approximately ¼ of whom were children or youth). Because family members responded separately to questions about mental health and well-being, and food security, it was possible to look at how food insecurity affected parents and children differently.
Shielding children from food insecurity has only limited effect on their mental health
“Although it is known that feeding children first protects them from malnutrition, how this practice affects family mental health has been unclear,” says Frank Elgar, the senior author on the recent paper in the Canadian Journal of Public Health and a professor in McGill’s School of Population and Global Health and the Canada Research Chair in Social Inequalities in Child Health. “We found that, for the one in eight households in Canada that is food-insecure, the ability to shield children and youth was associated only with reduced risks of mood disorder in youth, though it was also associated improved mental health outcomes more generally in adults.”
There was no evidence to suggest that shielding was associated with a reduction in the risks of anxiety disorder or having poor health or mental health in youth. Shielding aside, the results of the study clearly show that food insecurity is associated with poor mental health and lower well-being in both youth and adults.
“When children and youth are affected by food insecurity during a formative stage in their brain development, even if their parents do their best to shield them, there is no evidence that it significantly improves their psychological outcomes,” adds Elgar. “These findings underline the importance of policies that look at food security and mental health at the same time. People at food banks don’t just need food, they may also need mental health supports, especially to ensure that children and youth are not affected over the long term.”
Comparing youth and adult mental health in food-secure vs. food-insecure households
Comparing youth and adult mental health in shielded vs. unshielded households
“While this study found that shielding children and youth from food insecurity is associated with better psychological outcomes in both adults and youth, further work is needed to isolate the costs and benefits of this protective behaviour,” adds Elgar.
About this study
Ovenell M, Da Silva MA, Elgar FJ. Shielding children from food insecurity and its association with mental health and well-being in Canadian households [published online ahead of print, 2022 Jan 13]. Can J Public Health. 2022.
View Study: DOI: https://doi.org/10.17269/s41997-021-00597-2