The Link Between Food Insecurity and Eating Disorders

Food is a complicated topic. It’s not just about what you decide to put on your plate, but how you feel before and after you eat it, whether you have access to fresh foods or processed foods, and how much of it you can afford.

Similarly, food insecurity isn’t simply not having enough to eat, and eating disorders isn’t just not eating enough. These two nutrition-related issues are much more complicated and co-exist due to complex interactions between low-income levels, food scarcity, poor access to healthy foods, poor body image and weight stigma, and even racial and ethnic disparities.

Given an astonishing 20% of the adult US population experience some level of food insecurity, and 9% experience an eating disorder, understanding the relationship between these issues is a relevant challenge for millions of Americans.

What Is Food Insecurity?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food insecurity is the lack of regular access to safe, nutritious, and culturally acceptable foods for normal growth and development. Food insecurity exists across three different levels: mild, moderate, and severe.

Mild food insecurity is when there is uncertainty regarding the ability to obtain food. This can be related to limited physical access, such as no grocery stores nearby or financial access, such as limited funds to purchase enough food.

Food insecurity progresses from mild to moderate when the food quality and variety are compromised. In these cases, someone saves money by sacrificing food and prioritizes other basic needs. With severe food insecurity, someone might run out of food completely and may go without food for longer than a day. These people can experience hunger on a daily basis, and at times starve.

Food insecurity is strongly correlated with income levels, with the lowest income households experiencing the highest and most severe level of food insecurity. Unfortunately, over the past few years, COVID-19 food insecurity sky-rocketed due to lost incomes and affects roughly 20% of the U.S. adult population.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses with a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It’s estimated that around 9% of the U.S. population struggles with an eating disorder, the majority being women.

Although there are several different types of eating disorders, research suggests that bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders are most correlated with food insecurity. Both disorders are characterized by a distortion of body image, and an obsessive desire to lose weight.

The Connection Between Food Insecurity and Eating Disorders

The quantity of food for someone living with food insecurity is scarce, which can lead to a food scarcity mindset. For example, if living paycheck-to-paycheck or on government-assisted nutrition programs, like SNAP, there may be an abundance of food at the beginning of the month only to have barely enough to scrape by at the end of the month.

Thousands of years ago, humans lived in an environment with sporadic food availability. Since calories and food are essential to human life, you have inherited pathways in your brain that focus on obtaining food to survive. If you consider the modern-day individual living with food insecurity, they start to think, crave, and seek out food in a similar biological way to the humans thousands of years ago.

So, how does food scarcity relate to eating disorders? This type of hyper fixation on food or nutrition is considered a risk factor for developing an eating disorder, especially binge eating or bulimia nervosa. While hyper fixation or food insecurity may not cause an eating disorder on its own, it can contribute to one especially if other underlying risk factors are present.

For example, a study of over 800 individuals found that moderate and severe food insecurity is associated with bulimia nervosa. Individuals at these levels of food insecurity are compromising the quality and quantity of their food intake, and even go days without eating. Experiencing this type of food scarcity increases hyper fixation on foods, potentially fueling an eating disorder.

Social Media Intensifies Inequalities and Risk Factors

Beyond food scarcity, our modern society and the rise of social media has increased concerns about body image and weight stigma, factors that also set the groundwork for the development of eating disorders.

People are influenced to look, act, and feel a certain way when they use social media. Influencers, and even close friends, can share perfectly curated images of the foods they eat and their bodies to promote a ‘healthy lifestyle’.

Someone experiencing food insecurity may be not only dissatisfied with their body, but also the quality and quantity of food they have available, leading to disordered eating habits to achieve these unrealistic standards.

Access to Healthy Foods Remains a Challenge

Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grains, nuts, seeds, lean meats, and other foods that form the foundation for a healthy diet are expensive and out of reach for people living with food insecurity. On average, fresh foods are nearly twice as expensive as processed and packaged foods.

Furthermore, people experiencing food insecurity are more likely to live in food deserts. Food deserts are communities that have little access to grocery stores or markets that sell fresh, nutrient-dense foods at an affordable price. Lack of these stores forces residents to obtain their food from convenience stores or fast-food restaurants.

Solving Food Insecurity & Treating Eating Disorders

The link between food insecurity and eating disorders is intricate. It’s mostly related to food scarcity, low access to nutrient-dense foods, and poor body image and weight stigma. Any solutions must first address these underlying causes.

There is not one main cause of eating disorders, but rather a complicated mental illness related to both biological and environmental factors. Awareness of eating disorders in those experiencing food insecurity could help better design nutrition programs for these communities. Eating disorder treatment facilities offer the most appropriate level of care with their affordable treatment programs.

Both food insecurity and eating disorders are serious and complex problems that society continues to face. By decreasing the stigma around these issues and understanding the risk factors that create them, we are one step closer to helping the members of our community live a healthier life.

Clinicians deeply understand the relationship between food insecurity and eating disorders. That’s why they’re well-versed in working with patients dealing with both.

Toledo Center offers premier eating disorder treatment programs. From inpatient treatment to individualized outpatient programs, we are equipped to provide a comprehensive continuum of care to each person who seeks help.

As a result of our evidence-based methods, many patient outcomes lead to lasting recovery. Patients further learn coping skills needed to manage eating disorders in the presence of food insecurity.

For more information on the programs we offer, give us a call or fill out our contact form.

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