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Beyond nutrition: Hunger and its impact on the health of young canadians

A balanced and reliable diet in youth lays the foundation for growth, development and lifelong good health. Healthy diets help young people form strong bones, muscles and teeth; it helps their brains develop; protects them against diseases now and in the future; and provides a steady source of energy throughout the day.

Hunger is linked with a range of negative outcomes for a child’s health,  behaviour, emotional wellbeing, and academic experiences. Hunger is also associated with disease, pain, physical weakness, and anxiety.

Beyond not having enough money for food, the origins and health consequences of hunger have not been extensively studied for adolescents. This is especially true in first-world countries such as Canada.

Using data from 25,912 Canadian young people, taking part in the HBSC international survey in 2010, a team from Queen’s University looked at hunger in families and communities. They documented the prevalence of hunger, explored its contextual origins, and investigated the effect of hunger on child health.

The study found that occasional hunger due to not having enough food at home was reported by 25% of participants, with 4% reporting this experience ‘often’ or ‘always’. In a developed country such as Canada, it is remarkable that so many young people report going to bed hungry, even occasionally.

Additionally, the study discovered that the origins of hunger are not just socio-economic. They are also strongly related to the organisation and functioning of family environments. For example, adolescents from single parent and ‘other’ family structures reported the most frequent levels of hunger compared with families when both parents were present. Hunger was reported less often for children in homes where sitting down to eat together as a family was more common.

The consistency of hunger’s associations with a large number of negative health outcomes and behaviours - such as obesity and inactivity, frequent physical fighting, frequent bullying victimisation, and feeling low and irritable - was remarkable.

The study found that formal school programmes aimed at addressing hunger, food, and the nutritional needs of children had a limited impact on preventing children from ‘going to school or bed hungry’. While such programmes address an obvious need and remain an essential moral and social responsibility, they are only part of the solution to a more complex social problem.

Beyond the obvious need to provide food to hungry children, there is a need for rigorous evaluation of programmes and policies that attempt to address hunger at a societal level. The study also proposes a more holistic approach to hunger, which would include the provision of food, but would also look at the family context and the basic essential elements of care that children need for optimal development.

Access the publication
Pickett, W., Michaelson, V., & Davison, C. (2015). Beyond nutrition: hunger and its impact on the health of young Canadians. International journal of public health, 1-12. DOI: 10.1007/s00038-015-0673-z

Valerie Michaelson, School of Religion, Queen’s University
Colleen Davison, KGH Clinical Research Centre, Kingston General Hospital
William Pickett, Department of Public Health Sciences, Queen’s University

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item 3221
[05-10-2015 to 01-01-2016]


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