What is Scarcity Mindset?

I talk about scarcity mindset or scarcity mentality quite a bit with clients that have a strong history of dieting and want to get out of that pattern. In dieting it comes up because, by definition, when someone is on a diet to lose weight they are attempting to eat fewer calories than their body needs. This is what leads to weight loss. This also can lead to scarcity mindset if the restriction is too extreme or if it isn’t approached appropriately. Overtime, the brain starts believing that there won’t be enough food around so the dieter tends to overeat out of fear that food will be lacking (like it is during a diet).

It can go something like this: you reduce calories to lose weight for a period of time. You’re told you can’t eat over a certain amount of calories each day or you won’t lose weight so you attempt to cut portion sizes and eliminate your favorite snacks. You may be able to maintain this for a while and end up losing weight. Eventually, the hunger you feel starts getting too intense to ignore and you overeat, maybe even binge. You get back on the diet train the next day and try eating even less than before to make up for overeating the previous night. However, the craving for food gets even stronger and it gets harder to avoid those snacks that push you over your calorie limit goal. You may get into a cycle of restricting and overeating, or you simple call it quits on the diet all together and go back to old eating habits.

Sound familiar?

The more this happens, the more you can start fearing those periods of diet restriction. When the fear overwhelms your mind, scarcity mindset sets in. You know there is a period of time you’ll have to restrict food intake to lose that weight you want to lose so you fear the upcoming period of lacking. The brain makes decisions out of that fear. It “knows” you won’t be able to eat in abundance later, so it sets you up to eat in abundance now. This is how you can get in a cycle of overeating or binging that’s hard to get out of. It’s complete normal and biological; it’s how our ancestors made it through to allow us to be here now living in an era of abundance.

Our current coronavirus situation can trigger the same scarcity mindset. There are things we might be scared of running out of like toilet paper, so we stock up (we will not run out, don’t buy all the toilet paper please!). We also do this with food. We’re already stressed because jobs are being lost and we don’t know what the future holds. When you go into the grocery stores the shelves are emptier than most of us have even seen. This sets us up for scarcity mindset. You fear you will be lacking something in the future, so you “stock up” now and end up overeating.

How can you avoid this?

With dieting, learning something called intuitive eating can help. Simply put, it’s listening to your body cues to help you determine what, when, and how much to eat. For instance, instead of always avoiding hunger like from our earlier example, you would listen to it and make sure you’re not getting too hungry (or too full). Because we know getting too hungry is dangerous! We have all had the situation where we come home hungry and eat anything in sight then end up feeling sick or feeling like we can never reach satisfaction no matter how much we eat!

During this pandemic and quarantine managing stress can be a great way to mitigate scarcity mindset. Simply knowing what scarcity mentality is and that you’re not alone can be extremely helpful as well. That’s another goal with intuitive eating: knowing why your body is doing something or feeling a certain way. If you know the why and that it’s completely normal, it’s typically easier to accept and adjust your actions.

Here are some things you can do right now

  • Remember that we aren’t running out of food. Worse case scenario, you start getting low on some staple items and you can’t go out of the house at all. Know that most grocery stores are doing home delivery and don’t be afraid to call a neighbor, friend, or family member for help if you need it.
  • Find stress relieving activities to do daily that you genuinely enjoy. It could be reading, walking outside, sitting on the patio with your morning coffee listening to the birds, exercise, taking a hot bath, dancing to some upbeat music, doing a puzzle, hugging a loved one or anything else you enjoy. Whatever it is, write it down because when we’re stressed, we might not remember some of these things that could help.
  • If you’re scared of running out of food, write a list of all the meals you could make with the food you have right now. You might not be able to have some of your normal meals without making a grocery trip but I think you’d be surprised how long most of us can last with simply what’s in our panty and freezer.
  • Practice listening to your body cues. What does hunger feel like for you? What does satiety and fullness feel like to you? How do you know that it’s time to eat? How do you know that you’ve had enough?
  • Remember that this situation we are in will be short term and things will get back to normal.

Learning intuitive eating and how to reduce stress around food is absolutely possible and can help increase quality of life but it takes time and a lot of practice. If this is something you think might help you, please reach out.