Food insecurity and hunger drives higher levels of fast-food consumption in adolescents

The Paper of the Month for June is from the British Journal of Nutrition and is entitled “Food insecurity and hunger drives higher levels of fast-food consumption in adolescents” by Lee Smith, Yvonne Barnett, Jae Il Shin, Laurie Butler, Lin Yang, Mark Tully, and Ai Koyanagi.

Fast-food is sold in restaurants and snack bars as a quick meal or to be taken out, and often consists of low-nutrient and energy-dense foods. Consequently, fast-food consumers tend to have higher intakes of energy, fat, saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, sugar and sodium, as well as lower intakes of fibre, macronutrients and vitamins. This means that regular fast-food consumers have a higher risk of multiple physical and mental health complications. Worryingly, among adolescents the consumption of fast food is on the rise across the globe. 

Food insecurity is where households lack access to adequate food because of limited money or other resources, and severe food insecurity can lead to hunger. Hunger is likely a risk factor for fast-food consumption as people tend to shift to more calorie dense but less nutritious options when food is scarce. In our study consisting of 180,164 adolescents aged 12-15 years from 68 countries, representing all levels of economic development, we found that fast-food consumption was 1.17 times higher amongst adolescents who had experienced hunger during the previous 30 days compared to those who had not experienced hunger. Importantly, when looking at consumption by economic region, this association between hunger and fast-food only occurred in low and middle-income countries.

It is possible that fast-food is a comparatively more expensive food option in high-income countries, and high-income countries are also more likely to have measures in place to help support those experiencing hunger. Many high-income countries provide free and healthy school meals, and food banks are able to offer more nutritious alternatives to fast-food. These types of initiatives are rare in low and middle-income countries. Whether such methods, that require strong governmental and societal buy in, would be feasible and effective in low and middle-income countries is not known. Future research is therefore required to identify the efficacy of implementing such approaches in low economic settings.

Learn more

If you are interested in learning more about the food consumption and nutrition intakes in the UK compared with national recommendations, register for this on-demand webinar on the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, year 9-11 update.