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Food insecurity can harm both body and mind, says doctor

Lack of nutrients can cause the body to shut down: nutrition specialist

4 min read
A man in a grey sweater holds a yellow can of soup in a grocery aisle.
caption A shopper reaches for a can of soup from the grocery store shelves on a cold February morning.

Many Canadians are looking for more affordable alternatives to fill their shopping carts as the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables keeps rising.

But cheaper food can affect you in ways you may not expect, said Elisa Levi, a resident family doctor at McMaster University who specializes in nutrition.

“Those lower priced food options are going to be the things that are put in people’s baskets, and unfortunately, those end up being the more processed foods which have not only sodium, but higher trans fats, higher additives, and less nutrients.”

Short and long-term health

Cheaper foods tend to lack some vitamins and minerals, but contain large amounts of sodium and sugar. According to Levi, the inability to meet the body’s nutritional requirements has harsh consequences.

“You’d experience, just, hunger which is not a pleasant feeling. Hunger hurts,” said Levi. “Not having the protein … perhaps not having enough fibre – that slows down your system. You might experience that within weeks.”

According to a 2019 study from the school of health sciences at Eastern Michigan University, a lack of protein can also lead to muscle loss and a weaker immune system.

Canadians experiencing food insecurity also tend to see higher levels of obesity,  cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, said Levi. More than just the stomach and heart are affected, though, according to research compiled by PROOF and released in 2016.

Levi says prolonged periods of insufficient nutrients and calories can lead to disaster for the body.

“Your body is going to break down,” said Levi. “Your brain is always going to protect itself and get what it needs to function, whether that means breaking down fat stores or glycogen stores in your body.”

caption Dr. Elisa Levi
Elisa Levi

The consequences are not limited to physical health. Long-term, when food access is limited and feeding yourself becomes stressful, mental health begins to falter as well. According to Levi, headaches, migraines, and mood can all be affected by prolonged hunger.

“The psychological distress is what I think is the greatest impact on people because there’s so much joy that can be found in food and eating a meal with ones you love,” said Levi.

Food insecurity comes at a cost to the body and wallet. A 2015 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found a direct link between food insecurity and health-care costs.

“If you think about hospital (admissions), who’s going to heal better? Someone who’s healthy coming in versus someone who already has nutrition access issues coming in with the same issue. You don’t even have to do a study to know who’s going to do better,” said Levi.


She says there are simple ways families and consumers can turn nutrient-deficient food into sustainable, nourishing meals. Adding frozen peas to a dish of macaroni and cheese can fill in the gaps that pre-packaged meals leave open.

“The misconception is that those frozen foods are not as good, but in a way they are as good because they’re packaged as fresh as possible,” said Levi.

Buying frozen or canned vegetables is an effective alternative to fresh produce, Levi said. She adds that buying a can of beans or chickpeas can be equal to organic counterparts, so long as the excess salt is washed away with water.

Longer-term solutions are needed, however.

According to a 2017 report card by UNICEF, Canada ranks 37 out of 41 countries in terms of food security.

Canada is also the only G7 country without a national school food program. The federal government announced a plan to work with communities to develop a national food policy in last year’s federal budget, noting “nearly two million children in Canada are at risk of going to school hungry” each day.

Levi said policy can “at least ensure that all children, regardless of where they come from, who they are, have access to at least a healthy meal at school.”

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