Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are far more likely to have trouble getting enough food to eat than the average U.S. citizen.

More than one-fourth of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans don't have consistent access to sufficient food, says a new study by the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs hospital. That's almost twice as high as for the rest of the U.S. population.

The study, for the first time, takes a look at the issue of "food security" among the country's newest veterans — whether they have consistent access to sufficient food for a healthy lifestyle.

While the economic and reintegration challenges of some returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been well documented, it's been unknown how common it might be for them to struggle to get enough to eat.

Rachel Widome, lead author of the study, said she was "absolutely shocked" by the results, part of a larger study of health issues of Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Widome, an assistant professor in the U's Division of Epidemiology and Community Health. "I was really surprised to see that the prevalence of food insecurity was so high."

About 15 percent of the nearly 1,000 veterans surveyed reported low food security and an additional 12 percent reported very low food security. The rate of vets reporting very low food security was almost double the U.S. rate.

Low quality, not quantity

Households with low food security report reduced quality in their diet but little or no reduction in quantity. Households with very low food security report multiple times in a year when their food intake is affected.

Neither the number of deployments nor having a service-connected disability appeared to be connected to having trouble securing sufficient food, the study said. But veterans who were more likely to report food insecurity also had lower income levels, were living in households with more children, and reported leaving the military at a lower pay grade. They also reported being more likely to use tobacco, binge drink and get fewer hours of sleep a night.

The study suggests that more work needs to be done in connecting the country's newest veterans with jobs that provide a livable wage.

"It's easy to forget this, but the U.S. was engaged in two extremely expensive wars for over a decade, and I just think it is unconscionable that such a sizable proportion of those who were sent to fight in these wars are struggling to afford food," said Widome.

Links to other health threats

Addressing the concerns raised by the study could also have long-term implications, Widome said. The occurrence of problems obtaining sufficient food with other health factors such as tobacco use, problems with sleep, and binge drinking could have threats to their well-being and lead to chronic disease.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Public Health Nutrition, makes no recommendations about improving the situation, but awareness alone may help the Department of Veterans Affairs, social service agencies and any other nonprofits dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are struggling.

"It's important for all of us to be aware that these veterans may have another hidden struggle that they are dealing with that's hard to talk about," Widome said.

The study surveyed 922 Iraq or Afghanistan veterans who had at least one outpatient health care visit to the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. They answered statements like "The food that (I/we) bought just didn't last, and (I/we) didn't have money to get more," and "(I/we) couldn't afford to eat balanced meals."