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scarcity = “I want that”

Posted by on Jun 21, 2011 in Blog Posts | 24 comments

I am so enjoying being in Madison with the Ellyn Satter Institute members. I am learning much, enjoying being among such wonderful and experienced company! This might be the only post this week.

A few random thoughts on scarcity…

Scarcity makes virtually all humans want things more. A rare sports car, designer jeans, time off work, sex, food…

A few examples of scarcity and food:


  • My FIL was in town and we were all eating dinner. Everyone had had firsts of mushrooms, and M wanted the rest. She said, “Am I depriving anyone if I eat the rest of the mushrooms?” (We learned this from the cousins. It sounds funny coming from a 5 year- old, but it gets the point across.) Grampa replies he wants more and takes them. She has a few left. He says, “Huh, if she hadn’t said that I probably wouldn’t have taken any more.”

Ding-ding-ding! Scarcity.

  • I have also used it at times, (I admit) when M hasn’t expressed interest in a food on the first go round, and it’s just sitting there. I might look around and say, “Anyone want any X before I finish them?” At least half the time, that scarcity-factor kicks in and she will try some. Use this approach with caution. Accept when the answer is “no,” and have no emotion or no reaction, do not pressure or push. Used judiciously, it is an opportunity to observe the child’s reaction.
  • You might not be hungry, but there is only so much dessert, so you take your “share.”

the anticipation of scarcity:

  • Yesterday I had saved the home-made Door County cherry cobbler  dessert from lunch. I wasn’t really hungry for cobbler at 5 pm, but I ate it knowing I might not eat dinner until 7:30, and I would likely be VERY hungry by then. You have the opportunity to eat now, knowing you might not be able to eat for some time. You are not really hungry, but you eat it.
  • If I’m out and about when I usually have a meal (my body is so used to the routine, that I experience hunger at roughly the same times every day) I have baggies of almonds or cashews with me in my purse so I know I can “keep the wolf from the door” and won’t get too hungry.
  • If you know you can’t eat for a medical test the next morning. You might eat more than you want to anticipate and mitigate the hunger the next day.

A history of scarcity:

  • A child adopted from an institutional setting now lives in a home with plenty, but hides food in his pockets, become anxious when someone nibbles from his plate, gobbles his food quickly, takes most of the rolls form the common serving bowl… His history of scarcity (and possible malnutrition) informs everything about his approach to food. It will likely take months of reliable feeding and reassurance to rehabilitate his relationship with food. (Reassure, “There will always be enough.”)
  • Poverty and related food insecurity— which is at it’s highest levels in the last 25 years. Not knowing if and when you will be fed, if it will be enough, if there will be satisfying variety is incredibly frightening, particularly for a child who has so little control. A history of food scarcity is shown to dramatically alter one’s relationship with food. It will likely take months to years of reliable feeding and reassurance to rehabilitate the relationship with food

Dieting or restriction (perceived scarcity):

  • My friend who is “good” all morning, eating less than she wants and needs to. The physiological hunger, low blood sugar, and the psychological scarcity and deprivation overwhelm and she drives to the grocery store and eats a box of cookies.
  • That reaction to repeated or chronic real and perceived scarcity can become ingrained, almost reflexive. (Like the adopted child mentioned above.)

Scarcity -> desire and craving -> eating in the absence of hunger/overeating/binging (repeat)

For some who have dieted, and struggled with disordered eating,  even the thought of a diet, the keeping of a food journal, the sight of a favored or “bad” food triggers the vicious cycle. It will likely take months to years of reliable feeding and reassurance (and possibly more direct help) to rehabilitate the relationship with food and the body.

Well, these were just a few thoughts, after a long day and a short night, and not particularly well organized. What are your experiences with real and perceived scarcity? (I think the reaction to my last post about the cook’s “rules” where the first line said, “other than meals and snacks, the kitchen is closed” triggered this scarcity effect in some readers.)  Does knowing that the “scarcity-effect” exists help make the reactions less reflexive and more mindful and intentional? Does knowing give you more control?

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  1. Jenny Islander

    We have been on an elimination diet for several weeks now because some members of the family may have food sensitivities and we don’t have the money for medical tests right now. The non-sensitive members of the family are also on the diet because it isn’t fair to eat something in front of the possibly sensitive members that they can’t have. As might be expected, we all talk continually about food: what ingredient we want to “challenge” with first and what might be made from it, what “challenge” ingredients are in a particular food that we can’t have in the house right now, etc. With our usual prepackaged foods, and most of their homemade equivalents, off limits, we are all craving sweet and salty tastes: gobbling plain potato chips of the one locally available brand that contains only “safe” ingredients, plowing through watermelons and cantaloupes.

    I also find myself preparing just enough dinner for the others so that when I go to my evening job, I “have to” buy something to eat that “just happens” not to be on the probably-safe list. (I’m not one of the family members with potential unidentified sensitivities.) And I find myself eating and drinking more of these things than I did before we began the elimination diet.

    We just added eggs, our first “challenge” ingredient. As might be expected, they taste like ambrosia. The sense of relief from having just one more ingredient in the house is amazing. The things we can do with eggs! Why did I ever take eggs for granted? Etc.

  2. Zaftig Zeitgeist

    I’ve been vegetarian for about 10 years now (and pescetarian for 7 years before that). I tried veganism for 5 years but it didn’t really suit me. I got through so much cheese (specifically, Cheddar) when I first went back to vegetarianism, because that was pretty much the only thing I could never find a decent vegan substitute for. Eventually, my body/mind (not sure which it was) realised that yes, there would be cheese whenever I wanted it.

    • katja

      Ah yes, a category I missed. Dietary restrictions either for moral, health or religious reasons… Thanks for reminding me!

  3. Podkayne

    My mother was regularly into or just out of a diet as I was growing up, which meant we were all on a diet, since she was in charge of buying food. She would not buy anything that could be construed as a snack, for fear that she would eat it herself. Amounts of supper were small so that there would be no leftovers she might be tempted to eat.

    When I moved out I became obsessed with having food in the house. I was not inordinately interested in eating it: I just had to know it was there. I would walk to the grocery store to get hamburger for dinner even if I had two pounds in the freezer, because what if?

    ‘What if’ included “losing my job and not having enough money for food”, “it’s the middle of the night and I have nothing”, “guests come over and I can’t feed them”, “I don’t have the exact thing I want to eat already here”… I hoarded food. I was terrified of not having enough. I did not realize what I was doing then until reading this post just now. Frightening.

    • katja

      How long do you think it took to not hoard in that way? Does it help explain to know about the scarcity effect? Sounds like a pretty reasonable reaction to how you were raised…

  4. Michelle

    I love you for writing this post – couldn’t have said better to myself. I sometimes have to fight with my clients to get them to stop threatening themselves with dieting and hence inducing the scarcity mindset that triggers bingeing (or just feeling held in thrall to Bad Food.)

    So important.

    • katja

      Wow, high praise! I love your writing. This was something I was thinking about and wrote pretty off the cuff as usual, so I’m glad I wasn’t off the mark!

  5. Amber

    This makes a lot of sense to me. I grew up with a anorexic/bulimic mother and she destroyed my chances of ever having a normal relationship with food and my body. Everything in the house was low-fat and I lived on processed junk. My dad cooked real food but he worked most of the time so I usually ate frozen dinners. I would sneak forbidden foods and as soon as I moved out, I started buying all the things that had been off limits when I was kid and bingeing on them. There were times I didn’t even really like the particular food but would still buy it and wolf it down, driven by a compulsion I didn’t understand. I have PCOS and insulin resistance and I really need to quit eating refined sugar for my health. I feel so much better physically and mentally without it but it’s so hard to get past the drive to eat the forbidden food. I honestly like most vegetables and fruits but for some reason I can’t stop eating the junk.

    • katja

      Oh Amber, I am so sorry that happened to you. Scary, confusing, and in that environment, it sounded pretty impossible to have a normal relationship with food. It sounds like you have done a lot of work to get to where you are. I don’t think it’s too late though. It takes time, patience, and perhaps permission to eat the “junk” or refined foods, within the nurturing context of providing yourself with regular and rewarding meals with all those veggies you like as part of the offerings. The scarcity-effect is so powerful, that for many, even saying, “I shouldn’t” kicks that cycle into gear and drives the craving. It seems counterintuitive, but the very thinking, that “I shouldn’t” makes the foods more enticing perhaps. I would highly recommend “Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family” by Ellyn Satter if you haven’t read it already. Also is amazing. I also work with adult clients. I think you and others who have had traumatic beginning with food are facing an uphill battle, but the relationship with food can be healed. It takes incredible curiosity, kindness with yourself and the process, resources,and patience. Does that permission piece make sense? Many of my readers have made such tremendous gains after horrible beginnings with food. They inspire me!

  6. jessidehl

    I’m involved with our local food pantry that is very progressive. Rather than giving everyone a pre-made sack, we let our families “shop” and we only limit meat and peanut butter. Otherwise, families can come once a week and take what they need. You can watch the shopping habits of new families follow a familiar pattern. At the very first visit, you have to encourage them to start shopping because they are very unsure of themselves. Then, they will get “going” and take large quantities of food because they are food insecure. Once they realize that we stay stocked and they can come once a week, every week, they tend to have lower food pound totals.
    (one of these days I’m going to write a grant so you can come give a seminar. We have so many families with children that could use your information! And, we’re in Iowa so it isn’t THAT far away).

    • katja

      That is SO powerful! Thanks for sharing. I would love to come to Iowa and meet you! I’ve done a workshop in Iowa before, and I drove, so depending on where it is, we can save costs that way :) There are some amazing videos that might be a place to start. You can email me privately for some ideas on ways to get this info out…
      Ellyn’s videos are amazing in the diversity she captures on her video in terms of socio-economics, ethnicity and size…

  7. Quiet Dreams

    I share a lot of the feelings about food scarcity mentioned above. I noticed this weekend at a wedding that I ate the wedding cake even though I didn’t really want to. I was pleasantly full from the meal, but the thought that it was my only chance to try that cake convinced me to eat an entire piece that I didn’t want.

    • katja

      do you think that bringing that to consciousness will help you decide more intentionally if you want to eat the cake or not? You still might, you might not, but being aware of what is going on might be helpful… For example 10 years ago I would have eaten it without really being aware of what was going on, maybe I could decide consciously or not, but now I am able to say, “I’m not really hungry, but I want to see what the cake is like,” or “I’m not really hungry so this time I’ll pass…”
      Is that awareness helpful in the process of tuned-in eating?

  8. Pamela

    Thank you for this post!

    I am still struggling with overcoming the “scarcity” feeling. I experienced a lot of food deprivation as a child and teenager – part of it was my mother’s diet mania and some (most?) of it was due to a really restrictive religious sect that had us eating one fat-free, vegan meal per day (it’s really hard to feel full when you’re a growing teenager and you get a bowl of rice and vegetables cooked in water – no oil – once per day). That deprivation caused me to start binge eating as soon as I could. So, needless to say, food issues are huge for me.

    Anyway, I’m slowly rebuilding a trusting relationship with food and my body. I find that I get irrationally angry if I have to miss a meal for some reason, for example if I had a really big breakfast and I’m not hungry at lunch time. If I’m not hungry when it’s meal time, I still need to mark/honor that time somehow – so I’ll make a cup of tea and sit and drink it, sometimes with a bit of applesauce or yogurt. That calms the mental dialogue that freaks out when I miss/skip meals, but it also honors my body and my hunger.

    Anyway, thank you for your site! I’m not a parent but I find so much here that’s helpful as I work on rebuilding my relationship with food and my body.

    • katja

      Wow. Thank you for sharing this. How scary and unfair your experiences were with food…Of course you started binge eating, and how smart in a way. You did what you had to to survive. I feel a need to reframe that as a healthy, compensatory eating you did in response to food insecurity, but then that stopped serving your survival needs. Does that make sense? Am I off track?
      I am impressed with your insights, and your way of marking and honoring those missed meals. I am in awe at how you are figuring out what works for you. I love that…
      “If I’m not hungry when it’s meal time, I still need to mark/honor that time somehow – so I’ll make a cup of tea and sit and drink it, sometimes with a bit of applesauce or yogurt. That calms the mental dialogue that freaks out when I miss/skip meals, but it also honors my body and my hunger.”
      And, thank you… I learn so much from you all and your experiences.

  9. Emily

    [possible trigger warning for dieting]

    This post really resonated with me. I definitely have an issue with the fear of food scarcity. And, yes, knowing about it does make me feel better able to deal with it.

    Recently, I have realized that my pattern all of my life has been to eat in order to *prevent* hunger instead of to eat *when* I am hungry. When I recently started to listen to my body’s signals, I realized that the thought of getting hungry was very scary to me. I don’t really know why, but I know it has something to do with feeling vulnerable. I am privileged in that I do not ever have the real problem of not knowing if/where I will be able to find food if I am hungry. I have plenty of money and live in a city where all kinds of food are plentiful and easy to access (for me). Yet, still, the thought if getting hungry is still frightening on some unconscious, primal level.

    I have never been starved or starving, except for voluntary (and semi-voluntary?) diets, some of which were basically starvation diets (as low as 800 calories a day). I started dieting when I was 10 (a semi-liquid diet), have been on almost every diet imaginable for 20 years, and my last diet was a couple of years ago when I was 30. Growing up, my mom was always either dieting or planning a next diet. My parents never forced me to diet, but did encourage it as normal and even admirable behavior. I went to Weight Watchers and other places wirth my mom and by 13 could probably tell you the calories and fat and carbs in every food. All my life I was told not to let myself get hungry, or I would eat too much.

    I notice that a lot of my “scarcity” minded food patterns came up in my dieting years, such as the need for a “last supper” before a diet, or eating “bad” foods even when I might not really be craving them because I knew that soon I would be back on a diet and wouldn’t be able to have them. I even played with my scarcity-minded thinking to manipulate my will to stay on diets. I would buy “bad” food, such as a piece of cake or a chocolate bar and keep them in my fridge/house, and tell myself that it was there if I really needed it. This, for better or worse, kept me “on” diets and from suffering as much mentally, because I “tricked” myself into thinking I was not deprived.

    Thanks for reading, thanks for the post and the replies to my comments on the last post on food rules- I was one of the ones for whom the “kitchen is closed” rule triggered the scarcity effect! I didn’t even relaize it until you pointed it out.

  10. TropicalChrome

    I laughed a bit at the medical tests example, because that’s me :). Even though I usually go as long as I’m required for the pre-test fast without food, the minute I’m told “you can’t”, it changes the whole game. And it doesn’t matter how many logical and rational arguments I make to myself – the result is the same: I want to eat, even if I don’t really. It’s a deeply emotional reaction.

    So yes, I do eat heartily the night before, and always take myself out for a nice breakfast afterwards – because that’s how I remind myself this is temporary and an anomaly. I get the tests I need and I keep some sanity, so it’s all good.

    • katja

      yup, me too! Don’t like to “fast.” I don’t like feeling hungry, I never skip or “forget” to eat. i think people feel hunger differently… When I was dating my hubby, I told him I was having hunger pangs, and he jumped up frantically and said, “how far apart are they!” I knew he was beginning to understand :)

  11. Samantha C

    “the site of a favored or “bad” food” – Katja, should that be “sight”? 😉

    I’m still working out how I react to scarcity. I know that I’ve been having a few problems recently (after moving out of my parents’ house) with behaving as if I had scarce food even though I have full and open and encouraged access to the kitchen in two different households. I’ve been having slight issues feeling comfortable eating in front of my new roommates, but working around those – the trouble came when I was left by myself for the weekend, with no one to observe my eating, and I slipped into a few bad old habits. I ate very quickly, I ate things cold right out of the fridge without using any telltale dishes that would get dirty or without taking enough to be noticeable. I don’t believe I binge-ate per se, but I was certainly behaving the way I used to when I snuck cookies and spoonfulls of ice cream and whatever I could quickly, sneakily get my hands on. It used to be I’d sneak because it was my only chance to eat without being commented on, less because the food was going to go away. SO maybe it wasn’t the food for me, but the relaxed experience that was scarce when I was young – and trying to steal it destroyed the chances I actually had to eat slow and whatever I liked.

    • katja

      “…it used to be I’d sneak because it was my only chance to eat without being commented on, less because the food was going to go away. “so maybe it wasn’t the food for me, but the relaxed experience that was scarce when I was young – and trying to steal it destroyed the chances I actually had to eat slow and whatever I liked.”
      Wow, I love that. It is so powerful. You are aware, bringing light to your eating, wondering what it means and moving forward. You’ve said so much, I don’t have time to really get into it now, but thank you for sharing your experiences and vulnerabilities. We are all stronger when we share our struggles and discoveries. I love my readers!

  12. Nicole

    This is something I have struggled with for many years. I started dieting at age seven, and my parents were very strict with food (as my pediatrician told them to be, I don’t blame them!). My parents also dieted (especially my dad, who experienced major weight cycling throughout my childhood), which taught me that even in adulthood, you might not always get the food you want. I sneaked food a lot, mainly because I was hungry! When I left home for college, I predictably gained weight in the absence of the restrictions, but I still adhered to most of the “rules” I had learned about eating, thanks to years of restriction. When I got married, that all went out the window and I gained a lot more weight.

    I gave up dieting about five years ago, but I still find myself triggered sometimes. It’s not helpful, and I’d like to “normalize” my relationship with food. It’s really hard to find anyone in the medical profession who understands what I would like to do and would therefore help me.

    I am determined that my kids will never see me dieting and will never feel compelled to do it themselves. We will continue to eat healthily and be active, but dieting goes nowhere good. I think I’m proof of that.

    • katja

      thanks for sharing nicole. The medical community works hard against us, doesn’t it. It is frustrating. HAES-friendly professionals can help. You can start there perhaps? Secrets to feeding a healthy family is a great resource for adults too…

    • Elizabeth

      Totally unsolicited plug on my part – take a look at Michelle’s “Learn to Eat” offerings at She does sessions on Skype, so you don’t have to live in Toronto for her to be your nutritionist, and I can tell you from personal experience that she knows her stuff. Well worth it.

      • katja

        I LOVE Michele. We trained together. She is brilliant, and I recommend her to folks. I too do work in the Eating Competence model if anyone wants to explore that :)