Women with disabilities twice as likely to suffer from food insecurity, new study shows

Food insecurity – or food poverty – is a worldwide issue. Every day, millions of people go hungry and are unable to access sufficient quantities of nutritious food. And the situation is worse for those with any sort of disability.

In the UK, household food insecurity levels have gone up by 60% since early 2020. People with disabilities – particularly those with limited mobility or function – are disproportionately affected by this. The Food Foundation states that 36.1% of households with severely limiting disabilities experience food insecurity, versus the 10.6% of households with no limitations. [1]

In the US, a study has emerged that female adults (ages 18-44) with disabilities are far more likely to have poor diets and suffer from food insecurity. Whereas previously there was limited insight into the diets of women with disabilities, this study brings to light a difficult truth. 

What is food insecurity?

Food insecurity, or food poverty, involves a person experiencing one or more of the following situations [2]:

  • Small meals than previously consumed
  • Skipped meals due to lack of access or financial capacity
  • Hunger without being able to eat
  • A day spent without food due to lack of access or financial capacity

When a person lacks secure access to sufficient amounts of nutritious food required for a healthy lifestyle, they are said to experience “food insecurity.” In late 2021, around 4.7 million adults and 2.5 million children had experienced food insecurity in the past year. [3]

This 2022, about 1 in 20 households say they have gone a whole day without eating due to lack of access or ability to afford food. Inflation has driven up the price of basic goods, including food items considered household staples. [4]

Not everyone has equal access to food and the ability to afford it, and some sectors of the population have been hit worse than others. The study, called “Dietary Quality and Diet-Related Factors Among Female Adults of Reproductive Age With and Without Disabilities Participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, 2013-2018” [4], found that women with disabilities faced almost double the risk of food insecurity versus able-bodied women.

When a person lacks secure access to sufficient amounts of nutritious food required for a healthy lifestyle, they are said to experience “food insecurity.

Disabled women and food insecurity: a study

The objective of the study was to examine a connection between self-reported disabilities and diet. Researchers defined “disability” as:

“…serious difficulty hearing, seeing, concentrating, walking, dressing, and/or running errands due to physical, mental, or emotional conditions.” [5]

Parameters included women aged 18 through 44 who self-reported as suffering 1 or more disabilities.

The researchers analysed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2013–2018, as carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In these surveys, 3,579 women were asked about their food consumption, food security, participation in assistance programs, and other diet-related inquiries.

They were also asked if they had a disability, to which 16% reported “yes.” Of those 557 women, 207 reported 2 or more types of disability. 

They were also asked if they had a disability, to which 16% reported “yes.” Of those 557 women, 207 reported 2 or more types of disability. 

Results then showed that women with disabilities were more likely to report a poor diet (such as the consumption of fast food or frozen foods) alongside having low food security and high participation in food assistance programs. 

They were also less likely to plan, purchase, or prepare food in their households.

Women with 2 or more types of disability had slightly lower scores in terms of diet quality – relating to their consumption of fruit and protein.

In 2018, the Women’s Budget Group estimated that 14 million people in the UK suffered from a disability; of the total population, 23% of women are disabled. These women with disabilities were more likely to earn less, which can affect their access and ability to pay for food. [6]

The study did note that the topic requires more research into the intersection of disability status and dietary factors such as local food access, support for storage and preparation, and housing conditions. Researchers should also inspect the accessibility and availability of healthy food to women with disabilities.

Essential support for food insecurity

The study’s lead author, Andrea Deierlein, pointed out that a healthy diet is essential to personal physical well-being. But that requires the availability of healthy food as well as the ability to access and prepare it. Women with disabilities face more obstacles in these factors due to physical or mental conditions that limit their mobility.

This leads them to experience food insecurity and poor diets at a higher rate than women without disabilities.

Deierlein also noted that learning more about the food consumption of women with disabilities will aid in identifying barriers to an improved diet. Governments and organisations can then develop more targeted nutrition programs and policies in order to reduce the disparity in food access and overall health conditions. [7]


[1] https://foodfoundation.org.uk/initiatives/food-insecurity-tracking
[2] https://foodfoundation.org.uk/press-release/new-data-shows-food-insecurity-major-challenge-levelling-agenda
[3] https://post.parliament.uk/event-summary-food-insecurity-and-childrens-health/
[4] https://www.jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(22)00694-3/fulltext#%20
[5] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2022.07.010
[6] https://wbg.org.uk/analysis/2018-wbg-briefing-disabled-women-and-austerity
[7] https://theprint.in/features/study-finds-women-with-disabilities-are-more-likely-to-experience-insecurity-about-food-poor-diet/1119062/ 

Photograph: AS photostudio/ShutterStock

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