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off the charts

Food-Insecure Households Likelier to Have Chronic Diseases, Higher Health Costs

One reason why the emerging research, which we summarized in our new paper, increasingly links SNAP (food stamps) with improved health outcomes is that SNAP reduces “food insecurity” — i.e., insufficient access to enough food to live a healthy life over the course of a year.

Food insecurity is one of many social and economic factors that recent research has linked with poorer health and higher health care costs. The stress that food-insecure families face because they can’t consistently put healthy food on the table, along with the health effects of unpredictable or intermittent meals, may contribute to a higher risk of chronic conditions and other adverse health outcomes.

It’s often hard to establish whether food insecurity causes poor health, poor health causes food insecurity, or both are caused by other factors. But regardless, research establishes a strong relationship between food insecurity and health:

  • Food insecurity among children, working-age adults, and seniors is linked with worse diet quality, chronic conditions, and poorer health.
  • Adults in households with very low food security are at least 40 percent likelier to be diagnosed with a chronic condition, such as hypertension, coronary heart disease, hepatitis, or stroke, than adults in food-secure households. (See chart.)
  • Food insecurity is associated with the underuse of medication due to cost among working-age adults, including those with a chronic condition like diabetes, and among the elderly.
  • Food insecurity is also associated with greater use of health care services. Adults in food-insecure households are about 50 percent likelier to visit an emergency room, be admitted to a hospital, and stay hospitalized longer than adults in food-secure households.
  • Food insecurity is also linked with higher health care spending. After controlling for characteristics expected to affect food security and spending on health care, people in food-insecure households spend roughly 45 percent more on medical costs in a year ($6,100) than people in food-secure households ($4,200), one study found.

While evaluating SNAP’s impact on food insecurity is challenging, in part because households that apply for SNAP tend to be more food insecure, rigorous research that controls for these differences finds that SNAP reduces food insecurity for participants. Because SNAP reduces food insecurity and associated stress and frees up income for households to buy healthier food and spend more on health, SNAP may be a path toward better health, as our paper shows.