09/10/2013 12:08 EDT | Updated 11/10/2013 05:12 EST

Malnutrition Exists Right in Our Backyard

September is hunger awareness month. We are not talking about the developing world where food shortages have long been a menace to vast parts of its populations, but in the United States, one of the wealthiest places on Earth.

According to statistics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 14.5 per cent (17.6 million) of American households are currently experiencing so-called food insecurities, meaning they don't have enough to eat at least for some periods of time. 5.7 per cent (7.0 million) of families do worse. They find themselves without sufficient food supplies on a regular basis. As is often the case, children are the hardest hit in such situations, suffering the severest and longest-lasting consequences.

Regrettably, the long-term effects of food deprivation, especially at a young age, are not always readily understood or considered. Families who don't have the money to buy any food at times, rarely ever can afford high-quality products like fresh fruits and vegetables. They do the best they can by stretching their budget as far as possible. Typically that means purchasing the cheapest things they can find, like fast food and highly processed items, none of which are particularly health-conducive.

The inevitable result is malnutrition, which is harder to identify than actual hunger because the symptoms are less obvious, although the health-effects are similar in the long run.

A number of clinical studies have found strong links between chronic illnesses and malnutrition both in children and adults. One study from the Universities of Toronto and Calgary concluded that food insecurities and nutrient inadequacies at any time in life can give rise to chronic diseases and contribute to overall poor health.

More surprisingly, further studies by the same researchers revealed that the cause and effect relations work both ways, meaning that patients who suffer from nutrition-related illnesses are also more likely to experience continuing food insecurities due to disabilities and medical costs. In other words, it is easy to get caught up in a vicious cycle.

Malnutrition does not only affect the poor, however. Unhealthy eating habits are not exclusively caused by lack of funds but also by cultural preferences and lack of nutritional education. A study by the National Health Service (NHS) in Great Britain found that a third of the people admitted to hospitals and health care centres are diagnosed as malnourished or at risk of malnourishment. Many of these are elderly with reduced mobility and other conditions that prevent them from getting enough food, whether they are poor or not.

Symptoms of malnutrition in children include stunted growth, lack of energy, developmental difficulties, learning disabilities, and unhealthy behaviour like underage drug, tobacco and alcohol use.

In adults, malnutrition can lead to muscle loss, chronic tiredness, depression, and increased proneness to infections and illnesses.

Obviously, the simplest solution would be to make more food available to low-income families and individuals, and also to seniors who live on a limited budget. There is no shortage of food supply here, but quality items are increasingly out of reach for those who can't keep up with the ever-rising prices.

In the current political climate, it is unlikely that government subsidies such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will be increased (or even kept from further reduction) to the levels needed to end hunger in our country any time soon. But we have to be aware that the consequences of our neglect in this regard will be serious, and they will be dire.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson, RD

Most Challenging Places To Be A Mother