Adults in Households With More Severe Food Insecurity Are More Likely To Have a Chronic Disease

Photo collage of man looking into refrigerator and man getting his blood pressure checked

It is not surprising that food insecurity is strongly related to poverty. By definition, food insecure households lack access to enough of the kinds of food necessary for each household member to enjoy an active, healthy life because of lack of resources, usually money. But food insecurity is also strongly related to other kinds of hardship—in particular, poor health.

ERS researchers recently used health, demographic, and food security information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey to look closely at the relationship between 10 chronic diseases in low-income working-age adults and the food security status of their households. The researchers controlled for a variety of household and individual characteristics that may be associated with health—including income and health insurance—to get a clearer picture of the strength of the association between food security status and health.

There were two striking findings from this research. First, there were differences in adult health across four levels of food security ranging from high food security (household had no difficulty consistently obtaining adequate food) to very low food security (eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced). For example, the predicted probability of hypertension for low-income working-age adults living in a household experiencing very low food security was 10.5 percentage points higher than for those in high food-secure households. For low-income working-age adults in marginal and low food-secure households, their predicted probability of hypertension was 3.5 and 5.4 percentage points, respectively, higher than those in high food-secure households. This finding is important, because it suggests that food security status tracks closely with health.

Second, researchers found similar differences for all of the health conditions they examined—hypertension, coronary heart disease, hepatitis, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease. In all cases, the likelihood of having the particular health condition increased as household food security worsened. Among the 5 most common of the 10 chronic diseases examined, predicted illness prevalences were 4.3 to 11.2 percentage points higher for adults in very low food-secure households compared with those in high food-secure households.

The results of this analysis point to the importance of efforts to reduce food insecurity in the United States. Of course, reducing food insecurity on its own will not relieve adults of their asthma or hypertension. But, such reductions could make such chronic diseases easier to manage or ameliorate their impact on well-being.