The double burden of dietary restrictions and food insecurity

Photo by Aaron Doucett from Unsplash

Food insecurity is defined as “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.” [1] In the 2017/18 year, it was found that 4.4 million Canadians lived in food insecure households, equating to 12.7% of households in Canada. [2] According to Food Banks Canada’s HungerCounts study, there were over 1.3 million visits to food banks in March 2021 alone. However due to the resource limitations of food security resources, some Canadians living with chronic illnesses with dietary restrictions (e.g. Celiac, Crohn’s, allergies) may not be able to utilize these services.

This study on a US sample found that households with dietary restrictions were more likely to live in food insecurity than households without dietary restrictions. This is associated with multiple pathways. With chronic conditions such as Celiac disease, where the individual affected cannot have foods containing gluten greatly limits the range of food that can be consumed. Furthermore, a study has noted that gluten free products (e.g. pasta, bread) is about 159% more expensive than their glutinous equivalents. [3] This creates a greater financial burden which can push individuals and families into food insecurity, or further exacerbate the issues of food insecurity already facing them. Furthermore, when accessing food security resources such as food banks and more, there may not be appropriate and safe foods available due to limited resources of these services. As such, there has been a gap in support for food insecure individuals and families with dietary restrictions.

Additionally, this added stress may have negative psychological impacts, especially for caretakers of children with dietary restrictions. A study found that 81% of reported feelings of significant worry and 39% reported moderate to severe anxiety about their child’s food allergy. Greater intolerance of uncertainty and lower food allergy self-efficacy (belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviours that will not cause an allergic reaction) were also associated with poorer psychological outcomes. [4] Parents may be tasked with the choice of risking an allergic reaction in order to feed their child, or letting them go hungry to be safe. [5]

Advocates stress for greater awareness of food security resources that accommodate dietary restrictions such as allergies and gluten free diets. However, food banks are still just a band aid solution in the greater issue of food insecurity. While research has shown benefits for Choice Models and other alternative food bank models, the overarching issues around food insecurity such as poverty and the high price of alternative foods need to be addressed as a preventative measures to food insecurity, especially for those with dietary restrictions.

Why does this matter?

The right to food is a human right outlined by the United Nations and Food Secure Canada. But beyond this, food insecurity has major detriments on both mental and physical health especially for developing children. Hunger can have significant impairments on cognitive development that impact a child’s ability to learn at school. It has also been found to be associated with increased hospitalizations, poor health, iron deficiency, developmental risk and behaviour problems, primarily aggression, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorder. [6] These issues can then further perpetuate poor school performance that may lead to further health disparities and poverty in the future. [7]

Read more about initiatives working to accommodate those with dietary restrictions in food accessibility resources

Works Cited

[1] H. Canada, “Household food insecurity in Canada: Overview,” Jun. 22, 2010. (accessed Nov. 08, 2021).

[2] V. Tarasuk and A. Mitchell, “Household Food Insecurity in Canada:,” Top. Clin. Nutr., vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 299–312, 2020, doi: 10.1097/00008486–200510000–00003.

[3] B. Allen and C. Orfila, “The Availability and Nutritional Adequacy of Gluten-Free Bread and Pasta,” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 10, p. 1370, Sep. 2018, doi: 10.3390/nu10101370.

[4] K. Roberts, R. Meiser-Stedman, A. Brightwell, and J. Young, “Parental Anxiety and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Pediatric Food Allergy,” J. Pediatr. Psychol., vol. 46, no. 6, pp. 688–697, Jul. 2021, doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsab012.

[5] A. P. Tackett, C. M. Roberts, M. Farrow, and E. L. McQuaid, “Food insecurity and caregiver perceptions of food allergen risk by food purchase location in children with food allergies,” Transl. Behav. Med., vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 404–412, May 2019, doi: 10.1093/tbm/ibz059.

[6] M. Black, “Household food insecurities: Threats to children’s well-being,”, Jun. 2012. (accessed May 14, 2022).

[7] J. P. Yoo, K. S. Slack, and J. L. Holl, “Material Hardship and the Physical Health of School-Aged Children in Low-Income Households,” Am. J. Public Health, vol. 99, no. 5, pp. 829–836, May 2009, doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.119776.



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