Almost 50 million people in the United States are food insecure – that is, they lack access to adequate food because of limited money or other resources. University of Illinois economist Craig Gundersen and University of Kentucky’s James P. Ziliak examined recent research on food insecurity and its association with poor health, and offer suggestions including that doctors screen for hunger.
Negative health consequences linked to food insecurity include a lower nutrient intake, which may appear to be an obvious outcome. Less predictable outcomes include some birth defects, anemia, aggression, anxiety, asthma, behavioral problems, depression, thoughts of suicide and poor oral health.
Because of these strong associations between hunger and poor health, Gundersen and Ziliak recommend that health care professionals ask their patients some of the same questions used to determine whether someone is food insecure.
“Health care professionals should recognize the possibility that food insecurity may be one determinant, among others, of a patient’s health challenges,” Gundersen said. “Other nutrition-related health determinants, such as obesity, have received quite a bit of attention within the context of the doctor-patient relationship, but food insecurity has not received nearly as much attention.”
Health care professionals already take comprehensive patient histories and have opportunities during regular office visits to inquire about a patient’s confidence that they can afford to buy food for their family, the researchers said.
“This would give health care professionals one more tool in their kit to use in identifying food-insecure patients and offering care options,” Gundersen said. “One option not ordinarily considered in the context of an office visit is to refer patients to food assistance programs such as SNAP to alleviate food insecurity and its associated poor health consequences.
“With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the concomitant expansion of Medicaid, millions of low-income people are being brought into the health care system putting doctors and nurses at the frontline of helping to identify people who are food insecure,” Gundersen said.
The researchers suggest the new regulations that are being recommended for SNAP will make ineligible many people who currently benefit from the program.
“SNAP and other food-assistance programs lead to reductions in food insecurity and also lead to reductions in health care costs and poverty,” Gundersen said. “This needs to be acknowledged whenever potentially damaging changes to SNAP are being proposed.”
Gundersen and Ziliak’s paper “Food Insecurity and Health Outcomes” is published in Health Affairs. Gundersen is the Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agricultural Strategy and a professor of agricultural and consumer economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the U. of I. Ziliak is the Carol Martin Gatton Endowed Chair in Microeconomics in the department of economics at the University of Kentucky. The research was partially funded by the Economic Research Service and the Food and Nutrition Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.