Healthy Food

Food-insecure households spend 20% more on health care

It’s well-known that people who struggle to afford food or get enough to eat often have more health issues. A new study published in the journal Health Affairs found that families suffering from food insecurity also spend more on health care than families with reliable access to food — about 20% more.

There are a lot of reasons that being food insecure can compromise your health.

“If you’re worried about having enough food, if you have sort of a limited food budget, you often have to rely on sort of low-cost, cheaper, less healthy food options,” said Dr. Deepak Palakshappa, a professor at Wake Forest University and one of the study’s authors.

Eating less healthy food can lead to all sorts of health issues, like weight gain, diabetes or high blood pressure, he said.

Then there’s also the stress of constantly worrying about food.

“This is particularly the case for parents,” Palakshappa said. “When they’re constantly worried about, ‘How do I feed my child?’ — just the stress of worrying about that leads to worse mental health, leads to worse physical health.”

And that, he said, could lead to more trips to the doctor, more prescriptions and higher health care costs.

That’s exactly what’s happening to food-insecure families, according to Dr. Seth Berkowitz of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, another author of the study.

“We see more inpatient hospitalizations, more emergency department visits, more spending on medications and those kinds of things,” he said.

That’s true regardless of whether a family is insured or uninsured or has different kinds of coverage, Berkowitz added.

“Food insecurity does predispose adults and children to poor health,” said Dr. Hilary Seligman, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “But we also have to realize that poor health predisposes people in the US to food insecurity. And that’s because being sick is expensive.”

There are programs around the country — at various hospitals and through some insurance companies — that let doctors basically prescribe fruits and vegetables, he said.

“We know that these programs can help people to be more food secure. We know that they support healthier dietary intake. But the programs tend to be small, they tend to be short in duration and they tend not to give a sufficient amount of food to have a real impact.”

To have a real impact — on both people’s health and health care costs — she said these kinds of programs need to be scaled way up and last a lot longer.

There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.