A new study has found that repeated episodes of hunger may increase the risk of poor health for children and youngsters.

“Hunger is a serious risk factor for long-term poor health among children and youth, pointing to the relevance of severe food insecurity as an identifiable marker of vulnerability,” researchers said in the study published in the August issue of the American journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The conclusion was based on an analysis of data from a Canadian survey of 5,809 children aged 10 to 15 years and 3,333 youth aged 16 to 21 years, which was conducted from 1994 to 2004-2005.

During that time, 3.3 per cent of children and 3.9 per cent of youth experienced hunger at some point and 1.1 per cent of children and 1.4 per cent of youth went hungry on two or more occasions.

In the final round of the survey, 13.5 per cent of children and 28.6 per cent of youth reported poor health. Rates of poor health among those who’d experienced hunger at some point were higher than among those who had never gone hungry (32.9 per cent of children and 47.3 per cent of youth who had gone hungry were in poor health, compared with 12.8 per cent of children and 27.9 per cent of youth who had not).

The researchers also found that youth who went hungry more than once during the survey were at increased risk for asthma and other chronic illnesses.

“The mechanism by which childhood hunger negatively affects health is not well understood,” the researchers wrote. “Food insecurity has been associated with emotional and psychological stress among children, which could exert a negative effect on general health and contribute to heightened risk of chronic diseases.” In 2008, about 15 per cent of American households were affected by food insecurity, defined by the researchers as running out of food or lacking the money to buy food. That was an increase from 11 per cent in 2007 and the highest rate since monitoring began in 1995, according to background information in the study.

The research was led by Sharon Kirkpatrick, of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, at the time of the study and now at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.