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Food insecurity is associated with mental health problems among Canadian youth
  1. Fei Men1,2,
  2. Frank J. Elgar3,
  3. Valerie Tarasuk1
  1. 1Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  2. 2Consumer Sciences, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA
  3. 3Institute for Health and Social Policy, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Fei Men, Consumer Sciences, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; fmen{at}


Background Research has linked food insecurity to mental health problems, though little is known about this relationship among Canadian youth. We investigate the association between food insecurity severity and mental illnesses in a nationally representative youth sample.

Methods We sampled 55 700 youth 12–24 years from recent cycles of Canadian Community Health Survey. Household food insecurity was measured using a standard 18-item questionnaire. We fitted Poisson regressions on self-rated mental health and diagnosed mood and anxiety disorders, controlling for sociodemographic confounders. Clinical assessments of emotional distress, major depression and suicidal ideation were examined in subsamples with available data. We stratified the sample by gender, age and survey cycle to test potential demographic heterogeneity.

Results One in seven youth lived in marginal (5.30%), moderate (8.08%) or severe (1.44%) food insecurity. Results showed that food insecurity was associated with higher likelihood of every mental health problem examined. The association was graded, with more severe food insecurity linked to progressively worse mental health. Notably, marginal, moderate and severe food insecurity were associated with 1.77, 2.44 and 6.49 times higher risk of suicidal thoughts, respectively. The corresponding relative risk for mood disorders were 1.57, 2.00 and 2.89; those for anxiety disorders were 1.41, 1.65 and 2.58. Moderate food insecurity was more closely associated with mental health problems in 18–24 year olds than in 12–17 year olds.

Conclusions Food insecurity severity was associated with poorer mental health among Canadian youth independent of household income and other socioeconomic differences. Targeted policy intervention alleviating food insecurity may improve youth mental health.

  • mental health
  • suicide
  • depression
  • adolescents
  • health inequalities

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  • Contributors FM and VT designed research. FM and FE conducted research. FM analysed data. FM, VT and FE wrote the paper. FM had primary responsibility for final content. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding This work was supported by Joannah and Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition at the University of Toronto (no grant number assigned) and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (grants PJT-153260 and PJT-165971).

  • Disclaimer The funder had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; writing of the article; or decision to submit the article for publication.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data may be obtained from a third party and are not publicly available. The data that support the findings of this study are accessible through Statistics Canada with restrictions. For the present study, the data were accessed under contract through the Statistics Canada Research Data Centre at the University of Toronto.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.

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