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Poor food access impacts girls’ self-esteem

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

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Girls who worry about getting enough food to eat are significantly more likely to have low self-esteem, new international research has found.

Researchers from Edith Cowan University (Australia) and the University of Alberta (Canada) analysed data collected in Nova Scotia, Canada. The survey measured primary school students’ self-esteem and household ‘food security’, which is defined as regular and reliable access to sufficient safe, nutritious food.

The study, published in Nutrients, found that 25 per cent of households were food insecure, or lacked access to food.

They found that young girls from households that were moderately food insecure were 67 per cent more likely to have low self-esteem than their peers, even after adjusting for parental income and educational levels.

Lead author Dr Stephanie Godrich from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences said the results of the Canadian study had direct relevance for Australia.

“Some of our previous research has shown that 20 per cent of children across rural and remote Western Australia are food insecure and we could expect that these children’s self-esteem is also potentially being impacted by a lack of regular food access,” she said.

Greater effect for girls

Dr Godrich said the association between food insecurity and boys’ self-esteem was less pronounced than in girls.

“Previous research has found that living in a food insecure household may cause more stress for girls than boys, with parents more likely to discuss financial hardships with female children rather than male children.

“In addition, other research has found girls living in poverty are more likely than boys to have negative views on their life which may explain why we found a stronger link with self-esteem in girls,” she said.

Dr Godrich said the study also revealed that girls who regular lack access to food reported feeling less confident in their ability to make healthy food choices.

“This lack of confidence around food choices could have long-lasting health impacts for children who grow up in food insecure households,” she said.

“Food insecurity in childhood can increase behavioural issues, absenteeism and school achievement. These issues in childhood can set children on a course to develop mental health issues, reduced employment potential and family stress as an adult.”

Lessons for Australia

Dr Godrich said the study delivers some important messages for Australian policy-makers.

“Unlike in Canada and in the US, the Australian government doesn’t adequately measure food insecurity in national population surveys,” she said.

“This means that we don’t have a thorough understanding of the scale of the issue, which makes implementing effective changes to address the problem difficult.”

She said the research suggested the most effective way to alleviate food insecurity and the associated impact on children's self-esteem was to increase family income.

“In Australia, we know that household budgets have come under strain due to the dropping median income, and low income Australians are having to spend more of their budget on food.

"More support for these families is required, as we know they are doing their best under this pressure," she said.

Canadian Children from Food  Insecure Households Experience Low Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy for Healthy  Lifestyle Choices’ was recently published in Nutrients.

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