THURSDAY, Feb. 21, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Members of poor households in which it is consistently hard to afford enough high-quality food end up eating nutritionally risky diets, Canadian researchers reveal.
The new study is the first to show that food insecurity directly translates into poor nutrition. It also suggests that in such homes, adults and teens, rather than very young children, are the most likely to be subsisting on diets low in vitamins, minerals, fruits, vegetables, grains and meat.
"Over the long term, [food insecurity] could be expected to precipitate and complicate diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease," cautioned study co-author, Sharon Kirkpatrick, a doctoral candidate in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.
Kirkpatrick and study co-author Valerie Tarasuk published the findings in the March issue of The Journal of Nutrition.
According to a 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, just over 11 percent of American households are food-insecure.
The study highlights similar estimates for 2006, suggesting that 12.6 million U.S. households experience food insecurity, while 4.6 million have one or more family members going without food. Recent Canadian research indicates that just over 9 percent of households are food-insecure.
Against such numbers, Kirkpatrick and Tarasuk set out to analyze eating habits, detailed in interviews conducted by Statistics Canada between 2004 and 2005. The survey included 35,000 Canadians between the ages of 1 and 70 drawn from all socioeconomic groups.
Among younger children, Kirkpatrick and Tarasuk found that living in food-insecure homes translated into lower milk consumption and -- among those between 1 and 3 -- lower consumption of fruits and vegetables. However, overall, this group appeared to be relatively untouched by the food-security status of the household in terms of the amount of calories or micronutrients consumed.
Adolescents, however, were a different story. Boys between the ages of 14 and 18 living in food-insecure environments appeared to be particularly vulnerable to general micronutrient inadequacy in their diets, while also consuming less milk, fruit and vegetables than their peers.
Adolescent girls were also impacted. Teen diets for both sexes living in food-insecure homes were found to be deficient in vitamin A, protein and magnesium while compensated with food higher in fat content, relative to those from food-secure homes.
Adults in food-insecure settings consumed less protein, fat and fiber, and, in some cases, followed diets strikingly insufficient in vitamins and minerals. Among food-insecure men between the ages of 31 and 70 and food-insecure women between the ages of 51 and 70, overall caloric intake and meat consumption was also lower. And for most, carbohydrates accounted for a larger slice of their overall diet at the expense of fruit and milk consumption.
"The poor dietary patterns of those in food-insecure households provide a moral imperative for policy responses to address the root causes of this problem in both Canada and the U.S.," said Kirkpatrick.
Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, agreed the issue warrants greater attention.
"The issue of diet quality in low-income and food-insecure groups is a very serious issue, because the flip side of the low intake of minerals and vitamins is that these kind of low-quality diets are usually characterized by large amounts of starch and refined sugar," he said. "And, it's fair to assume, these people are not loading up on brown rice and quinoa [an organic grain]. So, we're talking about empty calories that predispose people to becoming overweight and definitely increase the risk for heart disease and diabetes. So, this needs to be looked at further."
For more on food insecurity in the United States, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture.