The Lingering Effect of Scarcity

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Cleaning up the house earlier this week, I came upon a bottle of hand sanitizer that was functionally empty, as the remaining liquid was too shallow for the pump to reach. If I had found it in 2019 or earlier, I would have dumped out the little bit of sanitizer and recycled the bottle without even considering any other option. But that was before COVID-19, before cleaning products became precious commodities, before I went from store to store in search of them only to find empty shelves, before opportunists were reselling them online for ten times their sticker prices, and before a friendly pharmacy clerk discreetly slipped me a pocket-sized bottle of sanitizer as though she was passing off a top-secret document in a spy movie.

After all of that, even four years later, no way could I bring myself to waste any amount of hand sanitizer. And really, that comes as no surprise. Several decades after the Great Depression, my grandparents still could not bring themselves to leave any food uneaten, so much so that they once finished Chinese food leftovers despite knowing that my brother and I had found a boiled insect in the rice.

As I was doing my best to transfer the remaining hand sanitizer to another bottle without spilling a drop, I thought about patients of mine who are still working to recover from food scarcity that ended many years ago. Remember, food scarcity has several etiologies, including famine, financial hardship, political blockades, food deserts, and limitations imposed by oneself or by someone else. Intellectually, we know the difference between going hungry because flooding destroyed this year’s crop and putting a cap on our eating because we are on a diet, but on a biological level, all our bodies know is that they are not getting what they need. When the restriction ends, we are driven to get as much as we can of what we missed for fear that another period of restriction will come.

The solution is indefinite abundance. The more we surround ourselves with food, especially ones that were previously restricted, and the more we reaffirm that we are done with self-imposed limitations, the more the drive to overconsume decreases. (Side note: Overeating can have several different roots. Here, I am referring specifically to overconsumption that comes from restriction.) If someone finds that a specific food is particularly a trigger, the stocking technique might be helpful.

Certainly, the concept of abundance entails a great deal of privilege, such as access to foods, money to buy them, and places to store them. Some of the factors that influence access are beyond our control. To the extent that we are able to give ourselves consistent and ongoing access to a wide variety of foods and pledge that the days of restricting ourselves are over and never to return, we help to curb the frenzied drive for more and more.

And of course it takes time, maybe even a long time, to shake scarcity’s impact. Understandably, we want to reach a more peaceful relationship with food sooner rather than later, but there is no way to rush the process. We just have to be patient, ride the wave of everything that comes up along the way, and continually remind ourselves that we will always do our best to maintain our access to hand sanitizer – I mean food – going forward.


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“I have to get rid of these leftovers or I will eat them all.” Sound familiar? The “them” in question could be leftovers from any holiday celebration that includes food, such as Halloween candy, Thanksgiving pie, Christmas cookies, New Year’s Eve hors d’oeuvres, Easter jelly beans, Memorial Day barbecue, or birthday cake and ice cream.

The aforementioned strategy for dealing with such leftovers sounds logical on the surface and might even seem to work for a little while. If the food is not there, you cannot eat it, right? As the never-ending cycle of holidays continues though, the strategy of avoidance reveals its downsides: stress, anxiety, deprivation, reinforcement of an oversimplified and misleading good/bad food dichotomy, and increased risk for episodes of overeating or outright bingeing.

An alternative does exist, one that takes less mental and emotional energy, allows people the freedom to enjoy holiday favorites without going overboard, and makes peace with food. This alternative is stocking, which is a well-known technique among practitioners who help people with emotional eating, compulsive eating, binge eating disorder, and supposed food addictions.

Stocking is the antithesis of quickly ridding the house of holiday leftovers, and it may initially seem counterintuitive. A full explanation of the technique requires more time and space than would be appropriate for this newsletter, but here are the highlights for your consideration.

Uncouple morality from food and eating behaviors

In order to feel more comfortable with stocking, people need to rid themselves of the good/bad food dichotomy and be able to temporarily put the hard science of nutrition on the back burner. Not all foods are the same nutritionally; it would be ridiculous to proclaim that an apple has the same nutritional value as a Twinkie, and I am not arguing otherwise. What I am suggesting, however, is to strip the moralization away from food. An apple is just an apple; you are not good or virtuous if you select it for your snack. A Twinkie is just a Twinkie; you are not bad, guilty, or weak-willed if you choose it instead. Sometimes your body’s cues will lead right to the apple, other times to the Twinkie, and either outcome is okay.

Establish an abundance of food at home

Identifying what food will feel best in your body means little if you do not have a reasonable shot of providing said food for yourself. Therefore, one of the tenets of stocking is to keep a wide variety at home, including foods that are seen as taboo and can trigger overeating or bingeing.

When our body is asking for a food we do not have on hand, we tend to overeat on the foods that are in the house. This can certainly occur with both adults and children, but we especially see this with teenagers who live in food-restricted households. Well-meaning parents might keep foods high in salt, sugar, or fat out of the house because they think that doing so creates a healthy food environment, but oftentimes it backfires. For example, the teenagers overeat on low-sodium potato chips that never really hit the spot while a small amount of regular chips would have done the trick, or they overeat on Newman’s Own fig cookies when really they just want a couple of Oreos.

Select foods based on intuitive-eating cues

One of the logistical differences between those who practice intuitive eating and those who do not is how food selection begins. Standing in front of the open refrigerator or scouring the pantry and cabinets and selecting whichever foods call to you is an external process that differs greatly from asking internal questions about what temperature, texture, flavor, color, etc., food will feel best in your body at that moment and seeing where it takes you.

These cannot be treated as leading questions. In other words, if you have stocked up on, let’s say, Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, and you are trying to convince yourself that your body does or does not actually want the ice cream, then stocking will not work. Keep an open mind, ask these questions neutrally, and see where your body’s cues take you.

Maintain the inventory of foods at home, especially of triggering foods

Maintaining the abundance of food in the household is an important element of stocking. If the supply dwindles, you might feel like you need to hurry up and eat a particular food while it is still around. Should you ever run out and then buy it again, the food regains its luster. If you are stocking Doritos, for example, maintain a supply of, say, ten large bags at home. As soon as you finish two bags and are down to eight, go out and buy two more.

Be patient and use a neutral voice

Initially, you may find yourself eating certain foods when your body does not actually want them, but as you keep up the practice, eventually your trigger foods will blend in with all of the other foods in your pantry and no longer sparkle the way they do when they are brand new to the house. Until then, abstain from judging yourself harshly for eating episodes that do not go as you would have liked. Remind yourself that you are still in the early stages of the process and you are learning. With a neutral voice, examine what happened so you can respond differently when similar circumstances arise in the future.

Enjoy your new-found peace with food

Imagine how different your experience with leftover Thanksgiving pie would be if you routinely kept slices of pie in your freezer for whenever your body wanted them. Contrast the fretting you feel about the remaining Halloween candy to the relaxed liberation of always having a few bags of peanut butter cups in the pantry year-round.

For the stocking technique to be successfully implemented, foundational work to dispel nutrition myths, break up the good/bad food dichotomy, and uncouple moralization from food choices is necessary beforehand. Because this process takes time, it is probably too late for the stocking technique to be much help for you this Thanksgiving unless you have already been working on these prerequisites.

The cycle of holidays will continue though, so if you get started now, you might find you have a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience with this February’s Valentine’s Day chocolates than you would have if you continued down your current path.