Food Insecurity and the Risk of Cognitive Impairment

If you often worry about where you’ll get your next meal, how to feed your family, and how to get your daily required nutrients, you could be food insecure. Food insecurity leads to various negative health outcomes, including diabetes, obesity, and heart-related ailments. Furthermore, research shows that a lack of proper access to regular nutritious meals can increase your risk of cognitive impairment over time.

Key takeaways:

What is food insecurity?

A 2021 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that of U.S. households evaluated, 10.2 % were food insecure. This translated to over five million households with very low food security. While this represents less than 4% of the American population, this is highly concerning. In a country as industrialized and advanced as the U.S., food insecurity (FI) should be 0%.

In the same 2021 study, researchers found that 6.2% or 2.3 million family units of U.S. households with kids were FI. As a result, many families with children who experience food shortages sometimes struggle to provide their kids with enough wholesome meals.

Food insecurity vs. food security

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service defines food security as a range from high to marginal security to low and very low insecurity.

One needs to understand the reasons for FI. By understanding what triggers FI, we can see how it might hurt a person’s brain health and result in cognitive impairment over time. Mental changes may reveal themselves as problems with memory or other thinking skills.

Determining food insecurity

Four factors underpin food insecurity:

  1. Food being physically available. One’s actual food supply.
  2. Access to food. Both physical and economic access.
  3. Food utilization. How the body processes nutrients. This is related to not just the foods we eat but how they are prepared, the variety in our diet, and how food is distributed.
  4. Stability of the first three factors. If one’s food intake is good one day but not another, you are insecure. If you intermittently have decreased access to appropriate nutrients, you are food insecure.

Circumstances like unemployment, increasing food costs, transportation and food manufacturing costs, political changes, and even weather conditions contribute to FI. To be considered food secure, all of the above four factors must be met at the same time. But research shows that when FI happens, a person’s mental ability decreases, even when education level, income, and other factors are considered. This shows how important FI is to overall health outcomes.

Food insecurity and cognitive decline

People experiencing FI may have various issues at varying times throughout a given period. They may run out of food or have foods that spoil too quickly, and they may not be able to afford well-balanced meals. They may skip meals or small portions, or even go a whole day or more without eating.

Food-insecure individuals may eat fewer (calories and/or nutrients) than the body requires. Many may go hungry, pausing due to short supply and choosing to feed others in the household instead of themselves. People with FI may lose (insufficient caloric intake) or gain weight (eating high-calorie, poor nutritionally dense foods).

Over time, this disorganized type of eating, lack of proper nutrients, and continual stress on the body can have a detrimental effect on one’s health, including brain health. Studies in animals and humans show varying degrees of mental decline as a result of lack of food, decreased nutrition, and other related parameters.

Four key components to food insecurity

The quantity of food one eats matters, but so does the quality of the food consumed. Excess consumption of the wrong foods increases one’s risk of diabetes, obesity, and other disorders, leading to negative health outcomes. FI creates a situation where this is more likely to occur.

Four key elements play a role in creating negative health outcomes in the presence of FI. These include:

  1. Lack of key nutrients. Tendency to consume poor quality foods; cheaper foodstuffs tend to be the less healthy options.
  2. Lower nutritional intake. Consume fewer fruits and veggies, many of which contain key vitamins and minerals needed.
  3. Lower diet quality. Poor healthy eating habits, often leading to an overconsumption of poor quality yet high-calorie foods with low nutritional value.
  4. Increased stress. Elevated cortisol levels (stress hormone) negatively affect brain health and cause increased inflammation over time. This contributes to earlier loss of cognitive function.

FI is a social determinant of health

FI represents one of the key social determinants of health (nonmedical factors that affect health outcomes). Numerous studies illuminate the various health conditions associated with FI. These include heart-related diseases, diabetes, obesity, sleep disruptions, and elevated blood pressure (hypertension). Furthermore, research has shown that not just physical health suffers, but also mental health and cognitive abilities. These abilities include:

  • Fluency in speech
  • Attention span
  • Working memory: those with FI have more trouble recalling everyday information
  • Processing speed: how fast one processes what is said or happening around them
  • Ability to learn something new

Resources for those with food insecurity

Suppose you, a loved one, friends, or acquaintances find yourself food insecure. In that case, a variety of programs may be available to assist you. It is never shameful to accept help from others, especially when that help can prevent negative long-term health effects, including cognitive impairment. Take action!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Food and Food System Resources page provides information on various opportunities, food banks, meal sites, and other services for individuals, families, and children. The CDC also provides a food finder for free food programs, Meals on Wheels information, healthy eating tips, and more. Another great site for food assistance programs is housed on the USDA's site.

Research clearly shows a connection between FI and declining brain function over time. This occurs regardless of an individual’s socioeconomic status (education, income, and occupation) and can occur at any age. This link between FI and mental decline emphasizes the need for public health and dietary strategies to reduce FI and prevent cognitive impairment.

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