Two University of Georgia professors gave a presentation on Wednesday afternoon that addressed a possible link between food insecurity and mental health.
With Georgia being on of the hungriest states in the U.S., Vibha Bhargava, an adjunct professor in financial planning, housing and consumer economics, and Jung Sun Lee, an associate professor in foods and nutrition, sought to find out the major factors that contribute to food insecurity and what role mental health may play in it.
Bhargava said they looked at factors such as the socio-economic status, race, gender and marital status of people, and whether or not they were on food stamps.
“Nearly 14.3 percent, or 17.5 million, of U.S. households were food insecure at some time in 2013,” Bhargava said.
She and the audience agreed that data seemed high, and she said the number of food insecure households has major individual and societal costs due to the health problems it causes.
Of all family structures, Bhargava said single mothers with children tend to be more food insecure.
“Single mothers with children are most likely to be food insecure,” she said. “There’s a lot of literature on poverty and the economic challenges faced by single moms.”
Bhargava said those with low food security often report worse physical health also tend to manage health problems such as diabetes worse than most people.
Although poor physical health and affordability can be major factors of food insecurity, she said they are also applicable for mental illnesses, particularly depression.
“This is a really complex issue because food insecurity is multi-dimensional,” Bhargava said. “It’s associated with so many factors, such as income, education, employment and physical health. And all of these factors are also related to mental health.”
Food insecurity can also lead to stressful situations, like tradeoffs between food and medicine, something that can also lead to depression, she said.
The environment one who suffers from food insecurity lives in can also lead to depression, Bhargava said.
“If you don’t see any signs of food insecurity in your neighbors, and they’re all doing good compared to you, who is struggling every day, that is bound to induce some stress as well,” she said.
Bhargava said the data that surprised her the most was that obese and overweight individuals suffering from food insecurity are less likely to be depressed than those at a healthy weight. What also surprised her was the high level of food insecurity and depression among individuals with food stamps.
“Food stamp participation increases your likelihood of being depressed,” Bhargava said. “There is a lot of literature that talks about the emotional stress associated with the stigma of receiving food stamp benefits. Some of that might be going on here.”
Lee said their research started out as a way to find out how to help low-income populations, and led to something different.
“Food insecurity is my specialty,” Lee said. “We wanted to work on some of the ways we could help low-income populations or those who are vulnerable in terms of income, nutrition and health disparities. It’s released a lot of interesting data sets, so we can do even more to examine this issue.”
Sae Chong, a consumer economics graduate student from South Korea, came to the presentation because she was interested in this topic and found the information that Bhargava and Lee compiled to be valuable.
“I’ve never seen a study done before that related food insecurity and mental illness, so this entire study was just interesting to me,” she said. “Depression is a growing problem in the U.S. and food insecurity is a major problem here, so it was interesting to see this.”