Childhood Food Neglect and Eating Disorder Risk

Two Children holding hands on a brick path

Too many children in the world experience restricted food access or “Childhood Food Neglect”. That is, they do not have access to fresh, affordable, culturally appropriate healthy food that they can get in a dignified way (1). Devastatingly, more than 11 million children in America live in “food insecure” homes, a number which is projected to increase to 18 million this year due to the complications of the COVID-19 outbreak (2).

These food insecure environments lead to an Adverse Childhood Experience known as “Childhood Food Neglect.” The child’s physical and mental well-being is neglected as a “result of material deprivation that is part and parcel of family-of-origin poverty, the result of parental neglect whereby the basic parent is unwilling or unable to provide basic life necessities for the child, or a combination of both (3).”

Impact of Childhood Food Neglect

It is not shocking that deprivation of accessible, sufficient, and adequate nourishment can do a great deal of harm to a child.

In a nutshell, “it is well-documented that inadequate nutrition stemming from food insecurity is associated with outcomes such as poor health, asthma, other chronic health conditions, and frequent hospitalizations as well as challenges with respect to neuro-cognitive, academic, psycho-emotional, and social skills development (3).”

Children walking and fighting Childhood Food NeglectEssentially, every aspect of a child’s physical and emotional health can be impacted by a lack of proper nutrition. Food neglect has also been shown to impact children behaviorally, both in childhood and adulthood.

One study determined that “childhood stress also shapes the functioning of the neural circuitry that underlies the self-regulation of appetitive behaviors. This shaping process gives rise to a phenotype that highly discounts the future, behaves in an impulsive fashion, and readily seeks out appetitive stimuli. As a consequence, the individual has a propensity for engaging in health-compromising behaviors, like smoking cigarettes, eating high-fat foods, avoiding physical activity, and drinking excess alcohol (3).”

Childhood hunger is also significantly associated with interpersonal violence between both men and women (3).

Food Neglect and Eating Disorders

Any experience we have with food impacts the relationship that we create with it and the beliefs surrounding this relationship. Researchers recently considered this as they studied childhood food neglect and eating disorder behaviors.

As we have learned, food neglect can impact a child’s physical and emotional health as well as their neurological responses and behaviors. As such, it is unsurprising that researchers learned that children who had experienced childhood food neglect were most likely to struggle with an eating disorder (4).

The study specifically found that these individuals were at a higher risk for developing symptoms of anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder (4). This information provides us with further understanding and urgency to eliminate childhood hunger worldwide, as our nation’s vulnerable youth suffer in both childhood and adulthood.


1. Young, K. (2019). Five things you should know about food access. PBS. Retrieved from

2. Unknown (2020). Poverty and childhood hunger. No Kid Hungry. Retrieved from

3. Vaughn, M. G., et al. (2016). Childhood reports of food neglect and impulse control problems and violence in adulthood. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

4. Coffino, J. A., Grilo, C. M., Udo, T. (2020). Childhood food neglect and adverse experiences associated DSM-5 eating disorders in national sample. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 127.

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published August 25, 2020, on
Reviewed & Approved on August 25, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC