Child Trends Data Bank - Indicators of Child and Youth Well-Being - 2016

Inadequate food intake in children is associated with a number of serious health, behavior, and cognitive deficits. Children who are food-insecure are in poorer health and are more likely to be developmentally at- risk than non-food-insecure children, according to parental reports. (2,3) Infants who experience food insecurity are more likely to have insecure attachment relationships, and to perform more poorly on tests of cognitive development. (4) Children in food-insecure households have more stomach aches, frequent headaches, and colds than children who are in food-secure households. Higher rates of hospitalization, iron deficiency anemia, and chronic health conditions are reported among food-insecure children.(5)

Studies also report that food insecurity is associated with higher rates of behavioral problems in 3-year-olds; in school-aged children, psychosocial deficits, as well as higher anxiety and depression; and, in adolescents, higher rates of depressive disorder and suicidal symptoms. Food-insecure children show smaller gains in math and reading achievement between kindergarten and third grade, and, among those ages 6 to 11, a higher likelihood of repeating a grade.(6) Food insecurity, particularly when experienced in the earliest primary grades, also has a significant detrimental effect on non-cognitive classroom measures, such as interpersonal skills, self-control, and the group of competencies (including attentiveness, persistence, and flexibility) termed “approaches to learning.”(7)

Counter-intuitively, child food-insecurity is also associated with a greater risk for being overweight. (8,9,10) While the processes underlying this association are not completely understood, food insecurity can result in lower diet quality and less variety, both of which can contribute to being overweight, and unpredictable availability of food can lead to overeating.11 In a study led by Child Trends researchers, household food insecurity was also associated with mothers’ depressive symptoms, and with fewer positive interactions between parents and their infant children; each of those factors could play some role in accounting for the risk for being overweight. (12) Food insecurity can also affect the health of pregnant women. One study showed that women living in food-insecure households had greater pregnancy weight-gains and a higher risk of diabetes—both of which increase the risk their infants will have health conditions related to overweight status. (13)

Recent research shows that even “marginal” food security is associated with poor health and developmental outcomes. (14) 


1 “Food-insecure” is a term used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to refer to “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” “Very low food security,” the most severe level measured by the survey, is characterized by irregular meals and inadequate food intake, as determined by caregivers.

2 Coleman-Jensen, A., McFall, W., & Nord, M. (2013). Food insecurity in households with children: prevalence, severity, and household characteristics, 2010-11.. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved from

3 Rose-Jacobs, R., Black, M. M., Casey P. H., et al. (2008). Household food insecurity: Associations with at-risk infant and toddler development. Pediatrics, 121(1), 65-72.

4 Zaslow, M., Bronte-Tinkew, J., Capps, R., Horowitz, A., Moore, K. A., & Weinstein, D. (2009). Food security during infancy: Implications for attachment and mental proficiency in toddlerhood. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 13, 66-80. and Child Health Journal, 13(1), 66-80.

5 Coleman-Jensen, A. (2013). Op. cit. 6 Ibid.

7 Howard, L. L. (2010). Does food insecurity at home affect non-cognitive performance at school? A longitudinal analysis of elementary student classroom behavior. Economics of Education Review, 30, 157-176.

8 Casey, P. H., Simpson, P. M., Gossett, J. M., et al. (2006). The association of child and household food insecurity with childhood overweight status. Pediatrics, 118(5), e1406-e1413.

9 Bronte-Tinkew, J., Zaslow, M., Capps, R., & Horowitz, A. (2007). Food insecurity and overweight among infants and toddlers: New insights into a troubling linkage. Child Trends Research Brief. Retrieved from content/uploads/2007/07/Child_Trends-2007_07_11_RB_FoodInsecurity.pdf

10 Food Research and Action Center. (2016). Why low-income and food-insecure people are vulnerable to overweight and obesity. Retrieved from

11 Bronte-Tinkew et al. Op. cit. 12 Ibid.

13 Laraia. B. A., Siega-Riz, & Gundersen, C. (2010). Household food insecurity is associated with self-reported pregravid weight status, gestational weight gain, and pregnancy complications. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(5), 692-701.

14 Cook, J. T., Black, M., Chilton, M., Cutts, D., Ettinger de Cuba, S., Heeren, T. C., Rose-Jacobs,R., Sandel, M., Casey, P. H., Coleman, S., Weiss, I., & Frank, D. A. (2013). Are food insecurity’s health impacts underestimated in the U.S. population? Advances in Nutrition, 4, 51-61.