A teenage eating the last bite of a sandwich.

Food insecurity raised risk for disordered eating in low-income adolescents

The study led by PhD student Laura Hooper surveyed a group of diverse, low socioeconomic status adolescents and found that 39% experienced household food insecurity and 43% reported disordered eating.

Charlie Plain | July 30, 2020

Food insecurity is a significant problem for adolescents, however, little research has focused on members of this age group and its influences on their well-being and development. To learn more, School of Public Health (SPH) researchers examined the relationship between household food insecurity and both disordered eating behaviors and weight status among adolescents. The study was led by SPH PhD. student Laura Hooper and recently published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Laura Hooper smiling
PhD student and study lead author Laura Hooper

Researchers collected data from an ethnically diverse and largely low socioeconomic status sample of adolescents who could be at risk for food insecurity. People from low socioeconomic as well as minority racial and ethnic groups are already known to be at risk for eating disorders and being overweight.

The adolescents were participants in the school’s long-running Project EAT (Eating and Activity over Time) study, which tracks the health and well-being of adolescents into adulthood.

The study found that among the adolescents surveyed:

  • 39% experienced household food insecurity;
  • 43% reported disordered eating;
  • 40% were overweight;
  • household food insecurity was associated with greater use of disordered eating behaviors and higher prevalence of overweight;
  • when the researchers accounted for socioeconomic status and ethnicity or race, food insecurity was associated with higher prevalence of disordered eating behaviors, but not being overweight.

“We controlled for socioeconomic status and race or ethnicity in our analyses because we wanted to understand whether food insecurity — above and beyond these factors — increases the risk for being overweight and disordered eating,” said Hooper.

Hooper’s accounting of those factors revealed that while food insecurity can contribute to someone being overweight, it poses particular risk for the development of disordered eating.

Ask adolescents
Hooper thinks that the findings show a clear link between food insecurity and unhealthy behaviors. She also believes that the key to solving the problems is to actively consult adolescents in identifying the needed solutions.

“It is important to view youth most affected by food insecurity — youth from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, youth from ethnically diverse backgrounds, and youth living in food deserts — as their own experts in this area,” said Hooper. “They have a unique understanding of barriers they face to adopting nutritionally adequate, balanced, healthful eating patterns because they navigate the associated challenges on a daily basis. Future research should engage these young people and seek input directly from them.”

Hooper adds that health care providers and youth-serving organizations should be aware that disordered eating, food insecurity, and being overweight are prevalent problems in youth that can occur together and may exacerbate one another.

Hooper’s next study will use the same cohort of participants to look at the long-term health effects of household food insecurity. She’ll examine if experiencing food insecurity during adolescent years is related to disordered eating behaviors and weight status in people eight years later who are entering adulthood.

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