Eating and the Scarcity Mindset
I was talking with a client* the other day about times she has noticed she eats more than feels good in her body. As we explored what was going on for her, we tried to see if there were any common threads for her in those times. She discovered that she consistently eats past her full-point when she really likes something she is eating and believes she might not have access to that food again for a long time. She related this to an animalistic instinct. In her words, “An animal on the African Savannah may have very few opportunities to get the food it needs, and because of this, it may eat more than it needs to sustain itself for longer even if it is already full.” Once she acknowledged that this might be part of what was happening for her, she was able to explore ways she might be able to step outside of that mindset and tune into what is happening inside her body to help guide her eating.
The animalistic instinct the client was referring to is called a scarcity mindset. In an article in the journal Science, researchers studied farmers who underwent cycles of living in poverty before the harvest to living outside of poverty after the harvest. They found that the same farmer performs poorly on cognitive tasks before the harvest when poor and higher on cognitive tasks after the harvest when rich. This same principle translates across many different areas of life, including food and eating. When we don’t allow ourselves to have foods we love and enjoy, thinking about food takes up more mental space that could otherwise be used for so many other things.
This is a common place you can get stuck as you move from a place of restricting what and when you are eating to a place of allowing all foods and listening to internal cues. If certain foods have been off limits or allowed only in small amounts, a scarcity mindset develops. As you start to incorporate those foods again, you may find yourself eating in frantic ways because you don’t know when you will truly be able to give yourself access to those foods again. This can lead to difficulty checking in with or heeding cues from the body. It can often lead you to get really stuck in your head about when you should stop eating or how much of the food is “allowed.”
So, once you have identified that you may be operating from a scarcity mindset, how can you work on moving through it? While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are some things you can explore and work to implement to decrease some of this thinking.
Are you eating regular and consistent meals and snacks throughout the day?
Take a food inventory. Are there still foods that you feel like you should be eating “only in moderation?” Where are those beliefs coming from?
Are you continuing to bargain with yourself about eating one way right now and then eating in a different way tomorrow?
If there are specific foods that feel like a struggle (there often are), are you choosing to have those foods frequently available and eating them often?
Do you practice eating in a mindful way at least some of the time?
Are you in tune with your body’s cues of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction? Are you able to listen and pay attention to them most of the time?
Are there certain situations that feel trickier for you to eat in? What makes eating feel different in those different situations?
This is not intended as an exhaustive list - there are so many things to consider and work through. This post is intended to invite you to consider ways a scarcity mindset might be showing up for you and explore ways of recognizing how scarcity might be undermining your ability to eat in an intuitive way. If this gets you thinking and you’d like to explore more but you aren’t sure where to start, we are taking new clients now. You can learn more about what nutrition counseling is like and make an appointment here.
Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, Jiaying Zhao. Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. Science. 2013;341(6149):976-980.
*This story is shared with the client’s permission and consent.