Grande Prairie Regional Hospital’s emergency room. The hospital was opened Dec. 4th, 2021 and serves a diverse population in northwest Alberta. PHOTO: ROGAN BOWEN-HARPER

A recent study found that food-insecure people in Canada are up to twice as likely to suffer pain-related emergency room visits as their food-secure counterparts.

The lead researcher was Fei Men, assistant professor in consumer sciences at the University of Alabama. 

Fei Men studies food insecurity, social policy and public health. He has worked on at least 18 peer-reviewed articles related to food insecurity. “I really felt that I could contribute more into the field of food insecurity because of my passion for social justice.” Photo taken from 

Men said his research is focused in Canada and the United States “because they are resource rich. They have all the money in the world, but somehow a significant portion of the population experiences food insecurity.” 

His study was published in January in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and co-authored by Marcelo Urquia at the University of Manitoba and Valerie Tarasuk from of the University of Toronto.

Working together, they did a cross-sectional study using two data sources: the Canadian Community Health Survey from 2005–2017 and the National Ambulatory Care Reporting System from 2003–2017. 

Some 212,300 people aged 12 years and older qualified for the study which divided the food-insecure by their personally-indicated food status.

“We found a very robust storyline that associates food-insecure people with higher likelihood, up to twice the likelihood actually, of visiting the emergency department due to pain compared to their food-secure counterparts,” said Men. 

In Calgary emergency rooms, abdominal pain was the leading pain complaint followed by chest/throat pain.  Physicians say they are seeing the impact of patients’ social needs. 

“Increasingly emergency departments need to include social workers on their staff,” said Dr. Eddy Lang, professor and department head of emergency medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

These social workers are vital to emergency rooms.

“I don’t think a shift goes by when I don’t ask for the help of our social worker,” said Lang. 

While offering the expertise needed to help the social issues of patients that come through the emergency room, the goal is to “identify and get people connected” to external social services like food banks and programs like CUPS.

This connection between pain and emergency room visits was unsurprising to Lynne Lafave, a nutrition science professor at Mount Royal University.

“We know that fruits and vegetables are the number one way for people to reduce chronic disease in their lives. It stands to reason that this would be true for pain as well.”

“The constant stress, the constant worry about running out of food and not being able to afford more. That takes the heaviest toll on the food-insecure people.”

Fei men, lead researcher

Men’s study theorized food-insecure people may experience pain not only because of suboptimal dietary intakes but also a higher likelihood of chronic disease, physically demanding jobs and being unable to afford medications or have access to physicians. 

According to Men, Alberta and Ontario were chosen for this study because of the robust nature of how emergency room and ambulatory services are documented in the provinces. 

Men pointed to the federal government’s National Poverty Strategy for recognizing the role food security plays in keeping people out of hospitals, but he also mentioned a fundamental flaw with how the current status quo attempts to solve food insecurity.  

person holding a cardboard banner

“Mostly, they are putting money into the food banks,” said Men. “Yet we have seen repeatedly that food banks do not have the capacity of tending to all the needs of the food-insecure people.”

He pointed out that food insecurity is less about the literal nutrients missing off the plate and more the “the constant stress, the constant worry about running out of food and not being able to afford more. That takes the heaviest toll on the food-insecure people.”

This is where the government’s reliance on the food bank becomes most problematic as the act of waiting in line to essentially beg for food takes its emotional toll on people. But “the government is kind of pushing everybody to do just that,” said Men.

This is one reason the study’s biggest recommendation was to further research the relationship between pain and food insecurity as it stands to bolster the argument for more preventative food-related legislation.

There’s significant stigma surrounding receiving assistance with food insecurity. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY: JOEL MUNIZ

Men also sees stigma as one of the biggest hurdles for combating food insecurity.

“You know, nobody wants to go to the food banks and food pantries to ask for food if they have the alternative of receiving government assistance of some sort so that they can dictate what to buy for themselves.”

Mount Royal University’s Lafave said the study may offer an opportunity for health improvements through prevention.

“If we put more money into thinking about how to get people healthy rather than taking care of them when they’re sick, perhaps we could actually save money.”

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