Low-income Canadians who struggle to put food on the table often incur greater health care costs, and government intervention is needed to tackle the problem, a new study suggests.

In some extreme cases, treating people in food-insecure households can cost the health care system twice much as as those with stable access to food, researchers say.

The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday, suggests that food insecurity -- a lack of regular access to food due to financial constraints -- diminishes a person’s overall health and increases cases of chronic disease.

"I think people have situations where they start making choices: Do I pay for medications or do I pay for food?" Dr. Paul Kurdyak, director of health systems research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, told CTV’s Canada AM on Tuesday.

"The implications are that if you don’t provide support for these individuals, you end up paying for it in ways we couldn’t see before."

In 2012, nearly 13 per cent of Canadian households had some level of food insecurity, according to figures cited by researchers. It was the highest rate since monitoring began in 2007.

The less access to food, the higher a person’s health care costs, the study suggested. Canadians with lower food security often require more public health care services. They also pay more out-of-pocket for services not always covered by the government, such as prescription drugs.

The research found that health care costs were 23 per cent higher for adults in marginally food-insecure households, 49 per cent higher for those in moderately food-insecure households and 121 per cent higher for those in severely food-insecure households, compared with adults in food-secure households.

"They are staggering numbers," Dr. Paul Kurdyak said.

The challenge for health care professionals lies in their limited ability to help patients who simply can’t afford three meals a day. Because of this, the study’s authors -- which include researchers from the University of Toronto, CAMH, ICES, and the University of Illinois -- are advocating for a public intervention.

"To date, no provincial or federal intervention has been introduced with the explicit goal of reducing household food insecurity, but our study findings suggest that such intervention would offset considerable public expenditures on health care and improve overall health," wrote the authors in a joint statement.

By the numbers

67,033: The number of adults considered in the study. Participants were Ontario adults between 18 and 64 who had participated in the Canadian Community Health Survey between 2005 and 2010.

12.2 per cent: The percentage of those sampled who lived in food-insecure households.

3.9 per cent: Of those in food insecure households, the percentage of those in “marginally food-insecure” homes.

5.2 per cent: Of those in food insecure households, the percentage of those in “moderately food-insecure” homes.

3.1 per cent: Of those in food insecure households, the percentage of those in “severely food-insecure” homes – the highest measure of deprivation.