Eating more fruits and vegetables, exercising, reducing stress, sleeping more, and quitting smoking all can play a role in reducing your risk of chronic illness, but none of these factors are actually the most important when it comes to staying healthy.
More important than all of these things? Knowing where your next source of food will come from.
According to a new report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity (lacking access to a safe, consistent, and socially-appropriate source of food) is strongly associated with an increased risk of developing chronic diseases.
An adult experiencing food insecurity, the report found, is more likely to develop at least one of the 10 most common chronic diseases — hypertension, coronary heart disease (CHD), hepatitis, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease — than an adult who is food secure.
The study drew its findings from 5 years of data (2011-2015) from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). All adults in the study lived in low-income households, but their level of food insecurity differed. Researchers categorizing the subjects based on their level of food security: high, marginal, low, and very low.
“The magnitude of the higher probabilities of chronic illness associated with food insecurity is striking,” researchers found.
Compared to low-income adults who experienced a high level of food security, low-income adults living in very-low food-insecure households were 20% more likely to develop hypertension, 59% more likely to develop diabetes and 158% more likely to develop COPD, according to the study.
The report also found that food security is a better indicator of health than income.
“Income is only significantly associated with 3 of the 10 chronic diseases — hepatitis, arthritis, and COPD — while food insecurity is significantly associated with all 10,” the report read.
While living in poverty does not directly mean a person is food insecure, poverty is a key factor in food insecurity, and the elimination of extreme poverty is critical to efforts to achieve worldwide food security, according to the World Bank.
Chronic diseases are on the rise in the US, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2015, the US spent $3.5 trillion on healthcare-related spending with chronic diseases comprising the majority of that spending. Over half of US adults have one or more chronic health conditions, and just two of the chronic diseases included in this study account for 46% of deaths in 2014, according to the CDC.
Almost 16 million people in the US live in food insecure households; 5% of the population (6.3 million) live in very low food insecure households, according to the USDA.
While this study focused only on American adults, people experience food insecurity at much higher rates in less developed countries around the world. In developing countries, the causes of food insecurity span from conflict and corruption, to extreme weather, to diseases like AIDS.
As food insecurity continues to be a problem in the US as well as worldwide, the impact it has on people’s long-term health becomes increasingly important to recognize.