A new study demonstrates just how perilous the long-term effects of food insecurity are on children. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the University of Calgary performed the first long-term study on the effects of hunger on general health, tracking children from birth to 21 years.

Exerpts from Time Magazine.

In the new analysis, the scientists found that children who went hungry at least once in their lives were 2½ times more likely to have poor overall health 10 to 15 years later, compared with those who never had to go without food. “Our research shows that hunger and food insecurity are really damaging in terms of children’s life chances,” says lead author Sharon Kirkpatrick, a visiting fellow at NCI.

The study supports earlier findings that multiple episodes of hunger are more likely to cause ill health than an isolated experience of starvation: children in Kirkpatrick’s analysis who experienced two or more periods of hunger were more than four times as likely to report poor health than those who never went hungry. The relationship, she says, remained strong even after the team accounted for other factors that could influence health, such as age, sex and household characteristics like income.

Even one experience of hunger can have lasting effects on a child’s health, a fact that is especially troubling in light of the sobering rise in U.S. households that were forced to do without food in 2008: 15% of American families reported some compromise in the amount or quality of food they consumed, up from 11% the previous year.

While this study did not delve into the specific mechanism by which hunger affects long-term health, Kirkpatrick speculates that both psychological and physiological factors may be at work. Aside from the obvious negative impact that missing key nutrients and calories can have on growth and development, she says, the psychological stress of food insecurity — not being able to afford a consistent and high-quality source of food — can be harmful to youngsters as well.

In an editorial accompanying the study, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, pediatricians propose enhancing and expanding existing child-nutrition programs made possible through legislation like the Child Nutrition Program Act, which provides funding for food and nutrition efforts, including the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, to ensure that more children get the food they need. “The research really pushes us to look at the impact that various policy interventions on food insecurity can have on health,” says Kirkpatrick. “It’s unacceptable that in countries like the U.S. and Canada, we’re talking about millions of children living in households with uncertain food access.”