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  • Writer's pictureSonia Rodriguez

Let's Talk About Scarcity Mentality

Hey, so remember a few weeks ago when you went to the store and all you could find was empty shelves where the toilet paper used to be? Or the catch in your throat when you hit the jackpot because they had just re-stocked eggs!

Did you feel panic at seeing those shelves so bare? Stock up on items you don't typically need or amounts that are WAYYYY more than you would buy in a month's time?

As regrettable as this current situation is, and I don't want to underplay it by any means, but as a dietitian who works with patients that have eating disorders and disordered eating, what I was seeing happening right in front of my eyes was the definition of what I talk to my patients about when it comes to restriction of foods and dieting.

As a species us humans are still programmed to seek out food at all costs. Especially in times of scarcity and when anxiety levels and panic are particularly high. Those genes are still in our DNA, and I'd also like to point out that many people still live with food scarcity, currently. My patients who have experienced food scarcity describe it as something so pervasive that behaviors associated with not having enough food can last a lifetime.

Having enough food and being able to seek it out is what separated those of us with scavenger DNA from those who didn't care much for food and therefore perished.

The famous Ancel Keys study done in the 1940s is a perfect example of what happens to perfectly capable functional humans when food is scarce. (trigger warning-link contains calorie information as well as visual images)

So why bring this up now? What I'd like you to consider is what happens when we diet or now more sneakily termed "lifestyle change." All diets function in the same way...restriction. Whether it be restriction of the time you can eat, what you can eat, etc, every single diet, by definition is designed to reduce your intake of food. Are you starting to see some similarities now?

Sometimes when patients would first start seeing me, they would describe to me what I later called the "last supper mentality." My patients anticipated that since I was a "diet"-ian, I was inevitably going to put them on a diet, and take away all the foods they loved and enjoyed. So they would eat all those foods in large portions before coming to my appointment expecting to never eat them again.

The majority told me stories of multiple failed dieting attempts or a sense of lack of control, almost out of body experiences with food, some not even remembering eating what was sitting right in front of them.

Our bodies are designed to survive. They don't care what size we are or what expectations around food are socially acceptable. At the core of our behavior is our desire to survive, and our genes and the systems in place to keep us alive will win out just about every single time.

People come to me a lot wanting to "just eat healthy". Why don't they like foods they know are good for them or that they "should" be eating more of ? This is an incredibly complex question that can't be answered in such a short post but one of the points I would start with, and most of the basis of how I practice is making sure that my patients get enough to eat. EVERY SINGLE BODY DESERVES TO HAVE ENOUGH FOOD.

One of the most influential models I use in practice is Satter's Hierarchy of Food Needs. This model is a take on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as it relates to food.

The first step in this model is having enough food. When you experience food scarcity, whether it be financial, dieting or otherwise, your behaviors will be driven exclusively by hunger and getting enough to eat. Typically survival foods are high in energy density because these foods are filling and can keep you from feeling hungry for a long time.

As we travel up Satter's Hierarchy we have the ability to become more discriminating in our food choices, we can start to think ahead to our next meal or next day, appetite and taste preference can lead more of our choices and we can even get tired of some of the foods we love (taste fatigue) and may start to explore new foods or prepare old foods in a different way.

Finally we reach instrumental food. Once all of our other food needs are met we can think about and consider foods that "do something for us" or might be functional, ie-eating to reduce disease risk-think the Mediterranean diet to lower heart disease risk or carb counting/selection for diabetes and blood sugar regulation.

It takes time for us to reach these higher levels, years or decades even, and it is unreasonable to ask us to reach for these higher levels when we are not quite ready. The concept of eating competence-also coined by Ellyn Satter gives us the time and flexibility to be curious about our behaviors and preferences and push ourselves along at a pace that feels appropriate for each one of us.

The key to it all though, is to start with having enough food.

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