For some people, the subject of hunger conjures up tragic images of starving people with swollen bellies in desolate and desolate parts of the world.
In this country, the picture is different. Food insecurity affects millions of people in the United States whose suffering may not seem so severe on the outside, but whose mental and physical health is still threatened by hunger and unhealthy diets.
“Inconsistent access to healthy foods has adverse health effects,” said Erica Kenney, assistant professor of nutrition in public health at the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard in Boston. “And a lot of people are forced to eat foods that are more likely to cause chronic disease.”
The absence of traumatic images of famine and misery “is the sneaky thing about poverty and hunger in America,” said Laurell Sims, co-executive director of the Urban Growers Collective, a Chicago-based nonprofit. which operates eight urban farms in the city, manages education and skills training programs, and distributes healthy food to people in need.
“We don’t see all the anxiety and stress of families on the brink of having to choose between paying the rent or the electric bill or providing food for their table, and how that affects their health and survival. “she said.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, food insecure households are at some point in the year uncertain whether or not they will get enough food due to lack of money or other resources. . In 2020, 38.3 million people lived in food insecure households, according to USDA data.
Food insecurity isn’t the same as hunger – the disheartening and debilitating feeling of an empty stomach – but experts say the two are often closely related. And the consequences can be stealthy and accumulate over time.
Everyone knows what it feels like to be hungry in the short term, Kenney said. “You might have hypoglycemia (a drop in blood sugar that can cause fatigue, irregular heartbeat, and dizziness). You just aren’t functioning well.”
Longer term, nutrition expert Colleen Spees said, “When you don’t get enough nutrients for your brain, muscles, and organs over time, we see the damaging effects. We see nutrition-related chronic diseases and multiple (other medical conditions) because very few people have only one disease. “
Various studies confirm this. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Heart Association looked at more than 27,000 adults surveyed from 1999 to 2014. Researchers found more cardiovascular disease and higher overall death rates among those who reported heart disease. food insecurity.
A 2010 Canadian study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine looked at more than 5,800 children aged 10 to 15 years. Those who experienced at least two episodes of hunger were nearly five times more likely to be unhealthy than children who were never hungry. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that high school students who can eat breakfast every day score better than those who cannot.
Food insecurity often leads to poor nutrition, Sims said. “You don’t have access to a well-balanced diet and fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “It deeply affects your whole life.”
And while it may sound contradictory, Spees said, food insecurity and poor nutrition can lead to obesity – a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and many cancers.
“You can lack certain nutrients while being overweight or obese,” said Spees, associate professor in the Division of Medical Dietetics at Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus. People who cannot access or cannot afford healthy foods can opt for cheaper, more convenient and less nutritious meals, like the dollar fast food menu, he said. she declared.
Fewer options can mean higher risk, Kenney said. “When families don’t have enough money, they end up with the cheapest options for keeping their children’s tummies full. Unfortunately, those options are also generally the least healthy.”
The stress of food insecurity and the economic hardship that often accompanies it is a risk factor in itself. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association released this year said stress can contribute to poor health behaviors, such as smoking, unhealthy eating, and physical inactivity, which are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. and stroke.
On top of all this, financial barriers to medical care mean that many food insecure people are often diagnosed much later, when a disease may already have progressed, Spees said. They “may have to choose between meeting a quota or buying food that week for their children.”
The dilemma of sourcing healthy foods and having access to a grocery store that sells those foods is not a fair dilemma. Blacks, Hispanics and other people of color have higher rates of food insecurity than whites, according to federal data.
Food availability is among many social factors closely linked to race and health outcomes, according to a 2020 AHA report which stated that “structural racism has been and remains a root cause of disparities. persistent health issues in the United States “. Solving problems such as food insecurity will require “policies, programs and partnerships between local, state and federal governments as well as initiatives supported by the private sector,” the report said.
At the Spees lab in Ohio, the research team provides individualized nutritional advice as well as advice for healthy lifestyles.
“These are not diets, these are behaviors that last a lifetime,” she said. “It’s about helping people understand why eating habits and physical activity are important to their health. Once they understand the connection, we help them identify the barriers to success and achieve their health goals. “
In Chicago, the Urban Growers Collective recently received funding from the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund of the AHA, which invests in local efforts to reduce social and economic barriers to health equity. Staff work with community groups to promote what Sims calls “food sovereignty” – access to good food, as well as education to promote healthy families.
One of the keys to doing this, Sims said, is making sure people use available resources, from food banks and social services to government programs like SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
“There are a lot of benefits that people are eligible for but don’t know,” she said. “We have to help them get that access. The more we can create that food sovereignty, the more we can really change the dynamics of neighborhoods.”
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