Maternal food insecurity linked to post-partum depression in Canada
pregnant woman
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September 1, 2020

URBANA, Ill. – Canadian women who experience food insecurity during pregnancy have increased risk of post-partum depression, and their children have higher frequency of emergency room visits, according to a new study from the University of Illinois and the University of Toronto.

Household food insecurity is a serious public health issue. It has been associated with pregnancy complications and poorer birth outcomes in the U.S., but little was known about these linkages in Canada. 

“We may be concerned about food insecurity by itself, but we may also be concerned about the health consequences. Our paper adds to the body of research on that topic,” says Craig Gundersen, distinguished professor of agricultural and consumer economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at U of I and co-author of the study.

Gundersen and lead author Valerie Tarasuk, University of Toronto, merged data from a large Canadian community health survey with information from major health databases to identify any adverse effects of food insecurity on pregnancy, birth, and children’s first year of life.

In the study, 5.6% of women were marginally food insecure and 10% were moderately or severely food insecure during pregnancy. In the latter group, 26.8% of women were diagnosed with post-partum depression, versus 13.9% of food-secure women.

The study also showed children born to food insecure mothers were at higher risk of being treated in the emergency room during their first year of life

Unlike studies conducted in other countries, the authors found no correlation between food insecurity and pregnancy complications or adverse birth outcomes in the Canadian sample.

“There may be several reasons for this. Pregnant women at risk for food insecurity may receive assistance through the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program,” Gundersen says. “Furthermore, Canadian women have near-universal access to health care due to Canada’s publicly funded health care system. This mitigates the access to physical health care but less so to mental health services.”

Gundersen says the findings are a cause for concern, both in Canada where the study was conducted, and in the United States.

“While mental health access is obviously important, it’s also crucial to handle the underlying food insecurity,” he says. “In the U.S., the most important tool is SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Our study illustrates the need for providing such interventions to reduce food insecurity for pregnant women and new mothers.”

The study, “Maternal food insecurity is associated with post-partum mental disorders,” is published in the Journal of Nutrition.

Authors include Valerie Tarasuk, Craig Gundersen, Xuesong Wang, Daniel E. Roth, and Marcelo L. Urquia.

Support was provided by the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences, which is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.