The Cycle of Poverty, Malnutrition, & Poor Mental Health

by Katherine Wong

As a social worker, I have noticed that the population that social service agencies serve is
often stuck in cycles that make it difficult for these people to ever become self-sufficient. One
of these cycles begins with low socio-economic status, which creates a problem in accessing
enough food or enough healthy food, which then leads to poor nutrition, which can lead to poor
mental health, which makes it difficult for people to work and/or access other resources, which
makes it likely that they will never be able to provide for themselves and must continually depend
on social service agencies to sustain themselves and their families.

It is not quite accurate to say that this cycle “begins” with low socio-economic status, since
there are several factors that lead to this state. For example, the recession we are currently
in has greatly increased the number of unemployed people in the United States. Often, when
money is limited, the first thing that people sacrifice is food; a creditor will come after you if
you don’t pay your bills but no one comes after you if you’re not eating. In 2008 “[m]ore than
49 million Americans – one in seven – struggled to get enough to eat”(1). A person may limit
his food intake or resort to cheap, prepared foods (such as high-kcalorie, nutrient-poor fast
food) in an effort to save money and time (especially if one is working multiple jobs to make
ends meet). Eating in such a manner will invariably lead to malnutrition.

Limited kcaloric intake and malnutrition can often lead to or exacerbate mental health problems.
* Ancel Keys’ Minnesota Starvation Experiment showed “the dramatic effect that starvation had
on mental attitude and personality” such as increased irritability, impatience, introversion, and
extreme fatigue(2). Two participants experienced such “severe psychological distress…[that it
resulted] in brief stays in the psychiatric ward”(2). Hunger can also cause people to “perform poorly
in school and social situations”(3). A lack of certain nutrients can cause an impairment of mental
health; a lack of thiamin, biotin, or folate can cause neurological disturbances; a lack of vitamin B6
can cause depression and/or confusion; a deficiency in magnesium can also cause confusion as
well as hallucinations; a deficiency in iron can impair work performance; and if a pregnant woman
is deficient in iodine her infant may be born with mental retardation(3). Carbohydrates are needed
to perform several functions, including the production of serotonin. Protein “increase[s] tyrosine,
dopamine, and norepinephrine, which help increase alertness”(4).

An impaired mental state makes it difficult, if not impossible, to perform tasks necessary to achieve
self-sufficiency. For example, poor concentration and depression can make it difficult to maintain
work, or nutrient deficiencies that cause confusion or hallucinations can make it difficult to function
in social situations. This means that a person with poor mental health has a more difficult time earning
money or understanding how to access resources that can help him/her and his/her family which keeps
them in their low socio-economic status. Thus, the cycle continues.

As a social worker, I have come to realize the importance of nutritional health for the overall well-being
for my clients and their families. As often as I can, I try to inform clients of the consequences of poor food
decisions and how they can use the resources they have to make healthier choices. Unfortunately, there is
only so much that can be done within a person’s means to access enough nutritious food. The greater
problem lies within the societal structures that allow such inequalities in socio-economic status to exist.

*Another important factor that can greatly affect mental health is exercise. However, I didn’t feel that this
topic quite fit into the article that I wanted to write. For more information, here are some helpful links:,,

3. Whitney, Ellie & Sharon Rady Rolfes. Understanding Nutrition Eleventh Edition. United States: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 2008.

fast food
Lack of money or time to cook can lead to cheap and/or easy, but unhealthy food choices.

Malnutrition affects brain function and can lead to depression.

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