How Nutritional and Social Pathways Influence The Relationship Between Food Insecurity and Mental Well-Being

Food insecurity is a widespread issue where individuals do not have access to adequate food and food sources that will help them achieve and experience a healthy lifestyle. Many studies are beginning to show that food insecurity impacts individuals’ physical well-being and mental well-being. Researchers are striving to better understand the relationship between food insecurity and mental health.

Researchers are striving to better understand the relationship between food insecurity and mental health

A study written by Weaver et al. (2021) investigated two possible explanations to explore the seemingly “black box” that links food insecurity and mental health. Researchers in this study aimed to investigate how food insecurity impacts depression and anxiety through two pathways: nutritional and social. The effect of nutritional pathways on the relationship between food insecurity and mental health was explored by measuring participants’ health markers (such as arm fat area, BMI, and hemoglobin levels). Researchers analyzed the effect of social pathways on food insecurity and mental health by testing social stressors such as not having desirable foods (e.g., meat) or not participating in socially ideal food practices (e.g., sharing foods with neighbors). 

This study took place in two distinct locations: a small rural area in Brazil and a medium-sized urban city in Ethiopia, which both reported high levels of food insecurity and depression. Researchers performed community surveys for households in Brazil and Ethiopia from 2015 to 2019, when the economy and food availability fluctuated.

The research was broken down into three phases. The first two phases involved preliminary procedures that established a mutual understanding of the social variables contributing to food insecurity. In the first research phase, researchers interviewed community members to create lists of socially food-related behaviors. The first variable that demonstrates socially food-related behaviors is defined as “CoC,” which represented food-related behaviors that were normal and food-related behaviors that revealed food insecurity. A second variable that demonstrated social food-related behaviors was food prestige, which measured how regularly individuals could purchase desired foods (e.g., meat, spices, butter, lasagna). 

The second phase of this research consisted of a confirmatory rating exercise where participants rated food items written on cards on a scale of 1–4, indicating the strength of food insecurity and poverty. This phase confirmed a firm agreement with participants regarding which “CoC” food items demonstrated food insecurity and what foods were prestigious. 

The third phase of the research study involved examining the relationship between food insecurity and mental well-being within nutritional and social pathways. Researchers explored the relationship between the social variables (CoC and food prestige scores), and mental well-being variables through Common Mental Disorder Symptoms Scores (CMD). The nutritional variables were explored by testing the relationship between an individual’s arm fat area, body mass index, and hemoglobin level with their CMD scores. Other variables that were measured were participants’ wealth, household food insecurity, and household demographic data. 

As expected, this study reported food insecurity scores to be positively correlated with CMD symptoms. However, when analyzing the effect of the nutritional pathway and social pathway on CMD symptoms, results varied depending on the location. Researchers found that socially food-related behaviors in this study were significant in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, both “CoC” and “food prestige” scores were correlated with CMD symptoms. However, in Brazil, “CoC” and “Food Prestige” scores were not correlated with CMD symptoms. 

This study found nutritional deficiencies within both populations; however, the nutritional measures were not correlated with food insecurity in Brazil and Ethiopia. Although there were no correlations with food insecurity and mental health explored in the nutritional pathway, researchers state their nutritional assessment was limited to arm fat area, BMI, and hemoglobin. This information allows future researchers to test for other possible nutritional measures that could reveal a relationship between food insecurity and CMD symptoms through other health markers, such as essential nutrients that promote healthy brain function.

Micronutrients that might substantially impact an individual’s mental well-being are B vitamins, folate, and vitamin D


Measuring arm fat area, BMI, and hemoglobin levels may play a significant role in revealing how ‘healthy’ we are, however, these three health markers may not be as directly evident of mental well-being as other nutritional factors. Many vitamins and minerals have been researched to reveal a significant relationship with mental health (see Micronutrients and Mental Health in the CNP Research Libraries). Examples of micronutrients that might substantially impact an individual’s mental well-being are B vitamins (Sánchez-Villegas et al., 2009), folate (Bender et al., 2017), and vitamin D ( Högberg et al., 2012). Folate is found in many vegetables and has been previously discovered to associate with depression significantly. The micronutrients vitamin B-12 and vitamin D are highly available in animal-based foods, and animal-based foods such as meat were labeled as “prestigious” in this study. Those that are “food insecure” were less likely to consume “prestigious” foods. Therefore exploring vital micronutrients more prevalent in “prestigious foods” is an alternative way to assess how food insecurity impacts mental health through nutritional pathways. Analyzing alternative nutritional variables may help reveal significant evidence of how nutrition plays a role in food insecurity and well-being in future studies.


Bender, A., Hagan, K. E., & Kingston, N. (2017). The association of folate and depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 95, 9–18.

Högberg, G., Gustafsson, S. A., Hällström, T., Gustafsson, T., Klawitter, B., & Petersson, M. (2012). Depressed adolescents in a case-series were low in vitamin D and depression was ameliorated by vitamin D supplementation. Acta Paediatrica, 101(7), 779–783.

Sánchez-Villegas, A., Doreste, J., Schlatter, J., Pla, J., Bes-Rastrollo, M., & Martínez-González, M. A. (2009). Association between folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 intake and depression in the SUN cohort study. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 22(2), 122–133.

Weaver, L. J., Owens, C., Tessema, F., Kebede, A., & Hadley, C. (2021). Unpacking the “black box” of global food insecurity and mental health. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 282, 114042–114042.

  • CNP Super Admin
    March 24, 2022 at 05:47 am
    Thank you! For more information on this topic, please see our Food Insecurity and Mental Health Research Category in the CNP Nutritional Psychology Research Library.
  • Chelsea
    November 03, 2021 at 08:56 pm
    Loved this blog! Food insecurity is often overlooked, but plays such a huge role in an individual's diet. It was also interesting to see how the different countries compared.

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