Children and youth who don’t have enough to eat are at increased risk of poor health, and repeated episodes of hunger may put them at risk for chronic diseases such as asthma, researchers say.
The finding is from an analysis of data from a Canadian survey of 5,809 children aged 10 to 15 years and 3,333 youth aged 16 to 21 years, which was conducted from 1994 to 2004-2005.
During that time, 3.3 percent of children and 3.9 percent of youth experienced hunger at some point and 1.1 percent of children and 1.4 percent of youth went hungry on two or more occasions, the study found.
In the final round of the survey, 13.5 percent of children and 28.6 percent of youth reported poor health. Rates of poor health among those who’d experienced hunger at some point were higher than among those who had never gone hungry (32.9 percent of children and 47.3 percent of youth who had gone hungry were in poor health, compared with 12.8 percent of children and 27.9 percent of youth who had not).
The researchers also found that youth who went hungry more than once during the survey were at increased risk for asthma and other chronic illnesses.
Sharon Kirkpatrick, of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, at the time of the study and now at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues published their findings in the August issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
In 2008, about 15 percent of American households were affected by food insecurity, defined by the researchers as running out of food or lacking the money to buy food. That’s an increase from 11 percent in 2007 and the highest rate since monitoring began in 1995, according to background information in the study.
“The mechanism by which childhood hunger negatively affects health is not well understood,” Kirkpatrick’s team wrote. “Food insecurity has been associated with emotional and psychological stress among children, which could exert a negative effect on general health and contribute to heightened risk of chronic diseases.”
The findings add to evidence that “hunger is a serious risk factor for long-term poor health among children and youth, pointing to the relevance of severe food insecurity as an identifiable marker of vulnerability,” the study authors concluded.