The Psychology of Food Insecurity: Effects of Early COVID-19 on Mental Health

A major component of nutritional psychology is the psychological impact of food insecurity on mental health. In the United States (as in many areas around the world), food insecurity has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic and is playing a role in the rise of mental health issues. The number of U.S. households experiencing food insecurity has tripled from 11% in 2018 to 35-38% during the initial months of COVID-19. As of March 2020, 44% of those in the low-income adult population experienced food insecurity along with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.

In a study by Wolfson, Garcia, & Leung (2021), the association between food insecurity, depression, anxiety, and stress was examined in a low-income adult population of 1,476 individuals between March 19th-24th in 2020. 

The researchers captured food security data using an 18-item U.S. Household Food Security questionnaire measuring household food insecurity status over the previous 30 days. Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture were used to define the food security categories which included high, marginal, low, or very low. Overall food insecurity was defined to include both the low and very low categories.  

A Patient Health Questionnaire measured how often participants felt anxiety and depression during the previous two weeks. Anxiety was assessed by capturing how often they felt nervous, anxious, on edge, or not able to stop or control their worrying. Depression was captured by how frequently they experienced pleasure in doing things, and how often they felt down, depressed, or hopeless. 

Participants used a four-point Likert scale ranging from 1) not at all, 2) somewhat, 3) very, or 4) extremely to rate their level of worry stemming from their ability to feed their families. The results revealed that very low food secure individuals were 7.49 times more likely to experience depression, 6.19 times more likely to have anxiety, and 10.91 times to perceive stress compared to food-secure individuals.  The researchers concluded a clear association between increased food insecurity levels with higher depression, anxiety, and stress levels.

For the open question on how COVID-19 was affecting participants’ lives, they expressed feeling depressed, scared, anxious, and depressed and shared that the pandemic was intensifying their pre-existing mental health conditions. 

The authors state that both short- and long-term mental health services must prioritize and provide equitable access to care for the low-income American population. Policies and solutions are needed to mitigate and prevent food insecure situations that impact mental health, such as the continuation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and access to emergency food resources.

More studies like these informing the Diet-Mental Health Relationship can be found in the CNP Food Insecurity and Mental Health research library.



Wolfson, J. A., Garcia, T., & Leung, C. W. (2021). Food insecurity is associated with depression, anxiety, and stress: Evidence from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Health Equity, 5(1), 64–71.


Further Reading

Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C.A., & Singh, A. (2020). Household food security in the United States. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from Household Food Security in the United States in 2019 – Summary (

Martinez, S. M., Frongillo, E. A., Leung, C., & Ritchie, L. (2020). No food for thought: Food insecurity is related to poor mental health and lower academic performance among students in California’s public university system. Journal of Health Psychology, 25(12), 1930–1939.

Martinez, S. M., Esaryk, E. E., Moffat, L., & Ritchie, L. (2021). Redefining basic needs for higher education: It’s more than minimal food and housing according to California university students. American Journal of Health Promotion: AJHP, 890117121992295. Advance online publication.



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