New Study Looks At Food Worry And Mental Health During The Pandemic

A new study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health looked at the associations between food worry and mental health during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our study focused on better understanding the mental health impacts due to worry about not having enough food to meet one’s household’s basic needs during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” study author Corey McAuliffe told us. “We aimed to identify the impact that food worry (concerns of meeting one’s basic food needs) had on different mental health experiences (e.g., anxiety/worry, depression, overall mental health, suicidal thoughts), as well as to explore potential inequitable impacts across the population.”

Based on past research and expertise, the research team wanted to see if the impacts of COVID on both food worry and mental health would play out differently for Canadians with different backgrounds and experiences. 

“There was much evidence from before the pandemic that made us think that gender, age, household income, ethnicity, having children living at home, LGBTQ+ identity, disability, pre-existing mental health conditions, and financial concerns would all impact peoples’ experiences related to both food, as well as mental health challenges,” McAuliffe told us. « Thus, we wanted to better understand if the pandemic may have compounded these historically uneven experiences.”

McAuliffe explained that the link between food security and mental health is really important with the pandemic highlighting how social conditions, such as being worried about not having enough food – a basic need – impacts mental health. This was a chance to bring together research and expertise about multiple public health challenges, with COVID reminding them of these links, and that they should be studied together rather than in isolation.  

Their team (a diverse group of researchers from UBC who work on public health and nutrition) worked with the Canadian Mental Health Association to collect survey responses from 3000 individuals living across Canada in May 2020, for the first round of a multi-round study focused on the mental health impacts of the pandemic.

« We learned that the risk of worry about having enough food does not play out equally across society,” McAuliffe told us. “Our research found large differences in terms of how common experiences of food worry were. The highest rates were reported by people with a disability, those who identified as Indigenous, as well as people who had a pre-existing mental health condition. Furthermore, younger adults, those from households with lower incomes (below $50k), and parents with children under 18 living at home were also more likely to worry about their food needs than the general population.”

Moreover, McAuliffe explained, those who identified food worry as a concern were more likely to also say that they felt anxious/worried and were almost twice as likely to report worsened mental health. 

“We were really struck to see that these folks had triple the odds of experiencing suicidal thoughts,” McAuliffe told us. “We further identified that 33.5% of people who identified financial worry also felt worried about having enough food. However, of those who did not identify having financial worries, only 7.6% felt food worry. Thus, our findings suggest that food worry was more prevalent, although not necessarily limited to, households experiencing COVID-19-related income shocks and other financial concerns. These links between food worry and mental health outcomes were still found after looking to see if the associations were being driven by other important factors (e.g., other financial worries, risk factors for poor mental health).”   

The team said they were not surprised with the findings. They knew that pre-pandemic, 13% of Canadian households reported some level of food insecurity within the past year – that is over four million Canadians already struggled to achieve stable and adequate access to food because of financial reasons. 

“In our study, we found over 17% of participants identified household food worry within the past two weeks,” McAuliffe told us. “While we can’t directly compare the data from our study to national estimates of food insecurity because we used slightly different questions and measures, the high levels of food insecurity reported across Canada are not new. Rather the pandemic is highlighting how social conditions, such as being worried about not having enough food – a basic human need – is also connected to other critical public health issues like mental health.”

McAuliffe believes the results from the study offers an important and critical reminder to ask leaders how they can’t address mental health challenges without also considering people’s basic needs. This includes making sure all Canadians have enough income and access to meet their basic food needs. This research also reminds us how important it is to continue to study and think about how the fall out from the pandemic affected different groups – and how important it will be to shore up our approaches to make sure we don’t forget these lessons after the pandemic. 

“This study reminds us that to understand complicated public health issues, we need different kinds of people working together to bring diverse lenses and experiences together,” study co-author Dr. Jennifer Black told us. « In this case, we had the experience of a team that included nursing researchers, mental health experts, food and nutrition-focused folks, and people lending their statistical expertise. We need this same kind of approach to enable us to solve complex public health issues. We need to come out of typical siloed areas and collaborate to think about ways social and health challenges are connected.” 

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