How does food insecurity affect mental health?

Food insecurity is a widespread, global issue that affects the lives of thousands of individuals every day. Aside from several other factors influenced by food insecurity, mental health is inevitably impacted as well. 

Stress related to the limited access to food as well as the low quality of food consumed due to an inability to afford more health-sustaining food choices are two of the biggest influences on mental health. The food we consume from day to day impacts our brains, and as a result, impacts our mental health. Beyond this, the stress and uncertainty associated with the inability to provide food for yourself and your family can also be exponentially impactful upon mental health. 

At Awakened Path, we believe that mental health can improve through both increased access to nutrient-dense foods as well as improved quality of the foods consumed.

Stress and Food Insecurity

The USDA defines food security as being “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The opposite, ‘food insecurity encompasses, but is not limited to, reduced quality, variety, or reduced food intake. Food insecurity is a widespread issue that causes tremendous stress to those who are impacted. Prolonged stress can result in mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety and can have long-term physical and mental health repercussions as well. 

American psychologist Abraham Maslow created his Hierarchy of Needs based on his theory regarding human-decision making. His hierarchy distinguished five categories of human needs that impact an individual’s behavior. The needs are illustrated in the shape of a pyramid, demonstrating that in order for ‘higher-order needs’ to be met, the most basic human needs must be met first. Maslow defined the most basic need as physiological needs including food, water, sufficient rest, clothing and shelter, and overall health. As he ascends the pyramid, an individual must fulfill his or her safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and finally, self-actualization needs.

Through Maslow’s framework, if one’s ability to access the basic need of food and food security, it is likely the remaining ‘needs,’ including one’s mental health, will be compromised as well. It is not until the individual’s most basic needs are satisfied that he or she will be able to address higher-level needs. In a world where these basic needs are compromised, this creates a crisis. Research shows that food insecurity has been a risk factor for depression, stress, and anxiety. Without adequate and consistent access to food, needs are unmet and an increase in stress within the body promotes the likelihood of symptoms of depression and anxiety.

At Awakened Path, our clients are encouraged to examine all facets of their lifestyle to ensure optimal wellness. That said, if food insecurity is an issue in a client’s life, it would be the clinician’s top priority to ensure he or she is able to access the food necessary to restore this basic need. Within our practice, mental health care is considered physical health care, and ensuring one’s safety and security, in all capacities, is of our utmost priority.

Quality of Food Impacts Mental Health

It is no question that, in general, fresher, more health-sustaining food cost more than foods of lesser quality. Unfortunately, higher-quality foods are inaccessible to those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the need to eat, rather than the need to eat well. Because of this, the foods that are affordable and accessible to those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds can have harmful effects on mental wellness due to their quality and the ingredients they contain. Foods that are highly processed—referred to as “ultra-processed” foods, highly refined, and loaded with synthetic and sometimes toxic ingredients—are the more available option.

3 Things to Keep in Mind About Food Choices

Food has the ability to nourish the brain or deprive the brain of essential nutrients. Through a diet deprived of essential vitamins and minerals, the brain is unable to thrive. Continuing in that logic, consuming foods of lesser quality impacts the brain to optimally function. In impoverished areas, it is not a choice of whether or not one can prioritize quality over less-nutritious options which contribute to the deprivation of proper nutrition for the body.

#1 The longer the shelf-life, the more preservatives

Foods that are shelf-stable are generally filled with preservatives and additives to increase their shelf life. While more cost-effective than fresher foods, it is important to consider the impact that preservatives have upon the brain. Research demonstrates that certain preservatives can be toxic for the brain and as a result, compromise mental health. So while shelf-stable foods may increase the shelf life and come at a lower cost, it ultimately impacts the brain’s ability to function and subsequently impacts mood.

#2 Sugar is one of the main culprits in compromising health

Access to sugar-dense foods is much more accessible and much more affordable to those of lower socioeconomic statuses. The impact that processed sugar has on the brain, and the body promotes inflammation and oxidative stress that manifests in illness and disease. While our bodies gather energy from glucose, a simple form of sugar, eating too much can play a detrimental role in our health. Furthermore, the refinement and processing have caused sugar to become a foreign substance to our bodies, causing systems to react and malfunction.

#3 Processed foods are not a good source of nutrition

Processed foods, while economically accessible, are oftentimes stripped of their nutrient quality during the development and packaging process. That said, while consumers feel they are purchasing affordable food, they are depriving themselves of the nutrition that is necessary for the body to function and thrive. Proper nourishment for the body and the brain comes from nutrient-dense food – food insecurity robs individuals of this privilege. 

At Awakened Path, we utilize nutrition and integrative medicine as supplemental to address mental health needs. While access to high-quality foods is not always financially plausible, our clinicians are able to educate and offer solutions to building your plate in a health-sustaining way without breaking the bank.

Where can I get help?

At Awakened Path, we firmly believe in the need to ensure basic lifestyle needs are met to live a full and happy life. Through your time in individual therapy, our clinicians are equipped at connecting you to local resources in order to be sure you can provide for you and your family, in a way that is cost-effective and supports a nourished brain. Food insecurity is unfortunate but it should not inhibit one’s ability to wellness. Integrative nutrition and healing can go hand and hand – and we’re here to support your relationship with healthy living as a whole. We’d love to connect with you further.

Additional Resources:

Check out this article on food insecurity and mental health to learn more:

Check out this article written by one of the clinicians here at Awakened Path on how to best support stress management:

Awakened Path Counseling proudly provides quality transpersonal and traditional psychotherapy, at their offices in Middlesex County, New Jersey, and online. Their experienced therapists specialize in serving children, teens and adults. The clinicians at Awakened Path Counseling are passionate about their holistic approach to mental health, addressing your emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual needs.

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