The Impact of Food Insecurity and Nutrition on Children’s Mental Health

Physical health, diet, and nutrition are just a few of the many components that influence children’s mental health. The development of eating behaviors begins in the first years of a child’s life, and as they grow and advance through school, their physical, emotional, social and mental health are in part affected by the availability, accessibility and familiarity of healthy (or not-so-healthy, not-so-accessible) foods. 

The evidence is clear: children who face food insecurities can develop mental health struggles. But those who receive positive, repeated experiences with good nutrition, a healthy diet, and exercise early and throughout their adolescent years, are more likely to enjoy positive mental health.

Links between Children’s Mental Health, Diet and Nutrition

There is a growing emphasis on the importance of incorporating nutrition plans into mental health programs for children and teens. With growing evidence that nutrition and physical activity play a key role in mental health, researchers from Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy are beginning to understand that “diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”

Unhealthy diets and food insecurities can cause depression, emotional challenges and struggles with peers. 

  • At ages 12 and 14, each additional hour of sedentary time is associated with 8–11% higher risk of depression by age 18.
  • Dropout rates increase among children with poorer diets and lower self-esteem.

On the contrary, research indicates that kids with healthy diets who get ample time and space for physical activity and exercise can improve their overall mental and social-emotional health.

  • In children ages 2–9,  healthy dietary guidelines result in better psychological well-being.
  • Adding just 60 minutes per day of light physical activity lowers the odds of depression at age 18 by 8–11%.

Signs that Diet and Activity Affect Mental Health for Kids and Adolescents

1. Overweight and Obesity 

The causes of child obesity are complex, ranging from poor eating habits to family history and trauma. Social pressure to maintain a certain body shape also contributes to a higher risk of mental health problems.

  • According to the CDC, 1 in 5 children and adolescents in the US have obesity.
  • In teens age 12–19, obesity prevalence is 21.2%.
  • The obesity prevalence for Hispanic children is 25.6%.
  • Worldwide rates of obesity have risen 10 fold since 1975

2. Low Energy, Poor Focus, and Mood Swings 

When diets are filled with sugars, caffeine, chemicals, and sodium, kids are left feeling tired, unfocused, jittery, and are susceptible to sickness, which not only impacts students’ grades and performance, but their behavior and moods. Moods and foods often reflect each other, and as teens develop through puberty, emotions can regulate eating and eating can regulate emotions. 

  • According to the Society for Neuroscience, students’ diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory.
  • Teens who eat a low-quality diet increase their chances of developing depression by 80%.

3. Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Types of eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, excessive exercise and other extreme measures related to diet. In some cases, teens engaged in substance abuse also show signs of eating disorders and mental health struggles.

  • Roughly 3% of children ages 13-18 will be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders most commonly affect adolescent girls and young women susceptible to social pressure.
  • Students spending more time on social media or watching TV are more likely to engage in uncontrolled eating or binge eating, according to a study by UC San Francisco.
  • The most commonly used drug by teens restricting their diets is caffeine — due in large part to fatigue.
  • Teens who purge are significantly more likely to use substances like drugs or alcohol.

COVID-19’s Impact on Food Insecurity & Kids’ Wellbeing

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic increased the pressures on children’s mental health and social-emotional well being through food insecurity challenges and physical activity limitations. Isolation, anxiety, and excessive hours of screen time have led to a surge in eating disorders among adolescents, too. 

For parents, the risk of mental illness from food insecurity through the pandemic has been nearly three times that of losing a job, resulting in an over 250% increase in the risks of depression and anxiety. 

Children and youth most certainly feel the strain as well, as evidenced by: 

  • Excessive thoughts about food arising from food insecurities, hunger, loss of familiar routines, and boredom
  • Concerns about body weight, shape and size as a result of overactive social media indulgence creating declines in body image and self-esteem
  • Self-induced or over extensive food control from food insecurity, poverty, or lack of food accessibility

Local Support for Jackson County Kids and Youth

Children’s Services Fund of Jackson County (CSF) helps provide the financial support necessary for local organizations to care for the mental, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth — no matter the cause of their need.

One such organization, KC Healthy Kids, is  focused on advancing the health and well-being of children and families through community-driven initiatives and advocacy. With programs for good food policy, local food, and active communities, they directly support the mental health needs of children and families, partnering with other organizations CSF funds, including: 

Children’s mental health matters. And it requires support from all of us in the Jackson County community. Curious about who we fund and how we’re funded? Learn more here.

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