Can hunger affect your mental health?

Sean Jackson
Author: Sean Jackson Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Hunger is often thought of as an issue that affects one’s body. However, hunger can also significantly impact children’s and adults’ mental health. Any number of conditions, from developmental delays to anxiety to depression, can result from being chronically hungry.

How does hunger affect mental health in children?

Hunger and mental health go hand in hand. The sad truth is that hunger is a global problem that impacts children of all backgrounds both mentally and physically in many different ways.

First, there are physical considerations to take into account – children that don’t eat enough healthy food are at risk for, among other things, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.[1] The prevailing theory is that food insecurity in childhood causes “toxic stress” [1] that increases the risk of these serious physiological conditions developing. 

Second, many different mental health conditions are also linked to childhood hunger. The question is, how does hunger affect mental health in children?

Increased stress

Children who are hungry experience stress on different levels. There’s the food insecurity stress that comes from not knowing when the next meal will be available. Think of this as personal stress about food.

But studies show that children also experience stress because of worrying about their parents, guardians, and other loved ones and when they will get their next meal. In fact, even though most parents experiencing food insecurity try to hide the lack of food from their children (e.g., by eating less), children are still aware of the situation.[2]

Anxiety and depression

Food insecurity and the related stress it causes can, in turn, lead to the development of anxiety, depression, or both in chronically hungry children. This is true even when other factors (e.g., parental distress, housing status, and other stressful life events) are controlled.[3]

In other words, even without other critical sources of stress, hungry children are more likely to develop anxiety or depression than their food-secure peers. In addition, some research suggests that childhood hunger makes children twice as likely to exhibit symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity.[4]

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Though PTSD is typically associated with war experiences and other traumatic events, childhood hunger appears to cause significant levels of stress and trauma, leading some children to develop PTSD as adults. Moreover, combining food-related stress and other traumatic events (e.g., child abuse or neglect) might lead to more severe cases of PTSD in adulthood.[5]

Hunger and mental health: Childhood hunger can contribute to developmental delays

Without proper access to healthy food, childhood hunger can lead children to experience developmental delays that last into adulthood.

For example, multiple studies have shown a link between a lack of healthy food and reduced cognitive functioning in children. This relationship occurs because food insecurity leads to decreased levels of nutritious intake, resulting in diminished energy. In turn, neural plasticity is affected, impairing a child’s cognitive functioning.[6]

Can long term hunger cause mental illness?

It’s important to note that the mental health conditions outlined above are not exclusive to childhood. In some cases, a disorder might begin to present itself in childhood, but in others, it’s not until adulthood that a disorder related to childhood hunger appears.

Specifically, researchers point to toxic stress (of which childhood hunger is a cause) as a primary culprit of lifelong physical and mental health issues.[7] When paired with other causes of toxic stress (e.g., climate change, threats of terrorism, gun violence), some children’s health trajectory shows poor outcomes from early on in life.

How does hunger affect mental health in adults?

The question, “Can hunger cause mental illness in children?” is only part of the equation. As adults, what effect does food insecurity have on mental health?

Adults who were food insecure during childhood have a higher risk of mental health issues, but even people who experience food insecurity for the first time as adults run a higher risk of developing various mental health issues.

Emotions and perception

You may have heard the term “hangry” – a combination of hungry and angry – before, or perhaps even used it yourself. And while “hangry” is a colloquial term, there is something to be said about the effect that hunger has on emotions.

Studies show that the hungrier you are, the more likely you can be primed to experience negative emotions. Moreover, the hungrier you are, the more likely you are to judge experiences or other people as unpleasant.[8] However, one’s level of emotional awareness is also a factor.

People with higher emotional awareness – those who understand their hunger might manifest as a negative emotion – are less likely to go from hungry to hunger-anger. Conversely, people with a lower level of emotional awareness are more likely to succumb to the negativity of being “hangry.” [8]

Anxiety and depression

Adults, like children, are more likely to experience anxiety and depression when food security is an issue. This association cuts across multiple lines, too. For example, adults of varying income levels, ages, and countries worldwide that experience food insecurity also experience more significant psychological distress.[9]

Anxiety and depression are even more likely when another stressor is introduced. For example, studies during the COVID-19 pandemic show that food insecurity increased the risk of developing anxiety by 257 percent and depression by 253 percent.[10]

Mental and physical impairment

Food insecurity can also lead to general occurrences of mental and physical impairments in adults. Apathy, irritability, and decreased cognitive functioning are just a few mental health effects of not eating enough healthy foods.

Physical impairments such as fatigue, a gaunt appearance, and reduced sex drive also result from food insecurity. Again, these and other harmful effects of hunger can be exacerbated by other factors, including genetics, environmental influences, and other mental health disorders.

Hungry adults also often obsess about food. During waking hours, hungry adults might daydream about food, talk about food, or read about food. Dreams can also be heavily focused on food and eating.[11]

What help is available for people living with food insecurity in the U.S.?

If you or someone you know is experiencing food insecurity, you can reach out to many organizations for help:

  • Feeding America is the largest hunger-relief organization in the U.S. and includes food pantries, food banks, and food-related community organizations.
  • No Kid Hungry provides advocacy services, resources, and raises awareness about child hunger in the United States.
  • The Hunger Project encourages individual and collective action to change unequal systems that lead to food insecurity and enable it to persist.
  • Bread for the World focuses on ending hunger worldwide through nonpartisan political engagement to improve and expand nutrition programs.
  • Action Against Hunger takes a multi-pronged approach to ending hunger, including funding nutritional research, helping food-insecure people find better employment to pay for food, and helping families build long-term resiliency.

Furthermore, local food banks, food pantries, and charities can assist you if you need food for yourself or your family. Homeless shelters and churches are additional resources you can explore if you don’t have access to enough food.

Federal programs like SNAP, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children are also available to assist low-income people experiencing food insecurity.

Resources
  1. Ke, J., & Ford-Jones, E. L. (2015). Food insecurity and hunger: A review of the effects on children’s health and behaviour. Paediatrics & Child Health, 20(2), 89–91. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/20.2.89
  2. Leung, C. (2020, February 7). For children, food insecurity means not only hunger but also stress, sadness. University of Michigan School of Public Health. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://sph.umich.edu/news/2020posts/food-insecurity-stress-sadness-in-children.html
  3. Weinreb, L., Wehler, C., Perloff, J., Scott, R., Hosmer, D., Sagor, L., & Gundersen, C. (2002). Hunger: Its impact on children’s health and mental health. Pediatrics, 110(4), e41. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.110.4.e41
  4. Melchior, M., Chastang, J. F., Falissard, B., Galéra, C., Tremblay, R. E., Côté, S. M., & Boivin, M. (2012). Food insecurity and children’s mental health: A prospective birth cohort study. PloS One, 7(12), e52615. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0052615
  5. Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. (2020, August 20). Elevated level of a “hunger” hormone leaves trauma-exposed adolescents at higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.mountsinai.org/about/newsroom/2020/elevated-level-of-a-hunger-hormone-leaves-trauma-exposed-adolescents-at-higher-risk-of-developing-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-pr
  6. Gallegos, D., Eivers, A., Sondergeld, P., & Pattinson, C. (2021). Food insecurity and child development: A state-of-the-art review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(17), 8990. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18178990
  7. Nelson, C. A., Scott, R. D., Bhutta, Z. A., Harris, N. B., Danese, A., & Samara, M. (2020). Adversity in childhood is linked to mental and physical health throughout life. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 371, m3048. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3048
  8. Lindquist, K. (2018, June 11). Are you really you when you’re hungry? Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/06/hungry
  9. Myers C. A. (2020). Food insecurity and psychological distress: A review of the recent literature. Current Nutrition Reports, 9(2), 107–118. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-020-00309-1
  10. Fang, D., Thomsen, M.R., & Nayga, R.M. The association between food insecurity and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMC Public Health 21, 607 (2021). Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10631-0
  11. Baker, D., & Keramidas, N. (2013, October). The psychology of hunger. The American Psychological Association. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/10/hunger
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Sean Jackson
Author Sean Jackson Writer

Sean Jackson serves as our expert medical writer with over 25 years of experience, dedicated to empowering every reader we serve.

Published: Aug 23rd 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Meet Morgan Blair, our accomplished medical reviewer. Morgan is a licensed therapist with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Aug 22nd 2023