Hungry and Unhealthy

Food insecurity linked to high health care costs in Canada

When food budget dollars are short, it can mean tough choices for families — and also more health care costs.

A new study from Canada found that low-income people who struggle to put food on the table also tend to use the health care system more, which means higher annual health care costs.

"We know that people who have trouble affording the food they need have poorer health in general as well as more chronic disease," said lead study author Valerie Tarasuk, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, in a press release.

The term "food insecure" describes inadequate access to food due to financial constraints.

According to Dr. Tarasuk and team, almost 13 percent of Canadian households were food insecure in 2012.

This is the highest rate since 2007, when national monitoring began.

In comparison, the US Department of Agriculture reported that 14.3 percent of Americans were food insecure in 2013.

Unlike the US, Canada doesn't have public programs to help those who are food insecure.

Dr. Tarasuk and team looked at food security and health care data on 67,033 adults ages 18 to 64 in Ontario, Canada.

Of these participants, 12.2 percent lived in food insecure households — 3.9 percent lived in marginally, 5.2 percent in moderately and 3.1 percent in severely food-insecure households.

Food insecurity was assessed with an 18-point scale (the same scale used in the US for this purpose).

Annual health care costs included emergency department visits, hospital stays, doctors visits, surgeries, prescription drug costs and home care over a one-year period.

The greater the food insecurity, the higher the average health care costs were.

Marginally food-insecure adults had annual health care costs 23 percent higher than those without food security issues.

For severely food-insecure adults, health care costs were 121 percent higher.

"Our findings suggest that food insecurity takes a significant toll on health care spending," Dr. Tarasuk and team said. "Household food insecurity was a potent predictor of health care costs incurred by working-age adults in Ontario, independent of other well-established social determinants of health."

This study was published in the August issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research funded this research. No conflicts of interest were disclosed.