How Dieting Creates a Scarcity Mindset

scarcity mindset

In this week’s episode, I talk about the scarcity mindset that dieting creates, how this tends to lead to the binge-restrict cycle, and how intuitive eating can help you get out of this cycle.

Scarcity Mindset during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, then you’ve probably seen the chaos that is our supermarkets and super centers. Before I went into my own social distancing over the weekend, I went to Target for a few items and the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, frozen and canned foods sections were a hot mess! People have been hoarding supplies like crazy. I read this article from The New York Times earlier this week where a man bought 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and has now been banned from Amazon for selling them for anywhere from $7 to $70. He was quoted saying “what the heck am I going to do with all of this?” after his ban. I mean… I personally have some choice words for what he could do with it, but let’s get back on task.

My point is that we’re currently in uncharted territories. Most people have never had to experience anything like this and they’re panicking. Now that you’re not sure when you’ll be able to get to the store again, you may have found yourself anxious and purchasing 50 rolls of toilet paper. And all of this is quite reminiscent of the scarcity mindset that chronic dieters often experience.

What Is The Scarcity Mindset?

Scarcity mindset is when you’re living your life from a place of “lack.” You’re left believing that there will never be enough of something. This “something” could vary from money to love—or in this case, food. In preparing for this episode, I did a little reading from a psychologist named Dr. Sharam Hesmat on Psychology Today. In his article, he talks about how “scarcity orients the mind automatically and powerfully toward unfulfilled needs.” So for example, if you are lacking money, you are likely thinking about money a lot. If you are hungry, then food is grabbing a lot of your attention. These are all forms of the scarcity mindset.

And the same rings true for diets. Have you ever noticed how when you start a diet, you actually start craving the foods you restrict MORE than you did prior to the diet? Let me set you up with an example. Let’s say I just started a diet because I want to lose weight quickly. So I decide to cut out a bunch of food groups. I cut out candy, cookies, pasta, soda, pretty much any refined carb. (Upon reflection, I actually didn’t eat a ton of these things before, but this is what everyone seems to be doing.) And what happens? I am absolutely OBSESSED with these foods now! So, I decide, “okay, I’m going to have a cheat day on Saturday.” And I eat a box of cookies, a whole bag of fun sized candy bars, and half a pizza. Then Sunday rolls around, I’m feeling miserable because I ate more than is normal for me, I broke my diet rules, and so now I really need to lay down the law. I’m going to be extra vigilant with my diet this week. Maybe I’ll cut out some other foods to get back that control I lost.

And so the cycle continues.

Dieting and the Scarcity Mindset

While this is my fictional example, it’s probably not all that far off from what some of you may have experienced while on a diet or any form of food restriction. This is what we call the binge-restrict cycle. You start dieting, because you now have all of these rules, you eventually start to have cravings and then subsequently lose of control, and then the cycle begins again. It’s a pendulum of sorts. There are these two extremes: Dieting or restriction AND Overeating or bingeing. You’re swinging from one extreme to the next. And in the middle of those two extremes is the sweet spot—that’s where you’re listening to your body’s needs and not the outside noise.

diet pendulum

Embracing Intuitive Eating to Break the Cycle

So if the binge-restrict cycle comes from a scarcity mindset, then part of the solution means that we need to start viewing food from a mindset of abundance. This is where Intuitive Eating comes into play. As a heads up, I will plan to go into better detail about the ins and outs of intuitive eating on a future episode. But for the sake of time, I’m simply going to give you a small taste of it today.

Intuitive Eating is a practice consisting of 10 principles created by two dietitians, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. While their book was originally published in the 1990’s, we’ve seen a recent resurgence in the last decade. And with good reason. From what I hear consistently from clients, they are sick of dieting. They don’t want to be worrying about the calories in their slice of toast when they are 85 years old.

So what is it? In a nutshell, Intuitive eating is described by the authors as “a dynamic mind-body integration of instinct, emotion, and rational thought.” This approach allows you to honor your health by listening to the messages of your body and meeting your physical and emotional needs. I no it maybe sounds very “woo-woo”, but I promise when you read the book and the research, it makes a lot more sense. The 10 principles help guide you into better body attunement—meaning the ability to hear the physical sensations that arise within your body. And diet culture is essentially doing the opposite when it places all of these rules on your body.

The 10 Principles

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
  2. Honor Your Hunger
  3. Make Peace with Food
  4. Challenge the Food Police
  5. Feel Your Fullness
  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  7. Cope with Your Feelings
  8. Respect your body
  9. Exercise: feel the difference
  10. Honor your health: gentle nutrition

Something I want to make sure you know is that Intuitive Eating is by no means an overnight process. People don’t just read the book and wake up the next day completely changed. Remember, you’ve been living in diet culture a long time. It’s going to take some time to adapt this new practice.

How to Get Started

My first tip would be to learn more about Intuitive Eating. There is a lot of misinformation out there—in other words, the diet industry is threatened so they have been hijacking a lot of the messages to push their agenda. So be cautious. Start with the experts by reading the OG book. I’d also recommend the companion workbook. Both of which I will link in my show notes and episode description.

The next thing I’d recommend is baby steps and support. This can feel like a lot at times, so be kind to yourself and take small steps. Don’t expect yourself to breeze through the principals in an afternoon. That’s just not feasible. If you’re finding that this is all overwhelming, then consider investing in the guidance of an expert. There are countless therapists and dietitians—myself included—who can work with you individually. Some even work virtually. I’d be more than happy to help you find a good fit for you.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite journal activities. Set aside some time to pull out your journal or some scratch paper and write from the following prompt: What might your life look like if you let go of food rules and trying to control the size of your body? You might be surprised how much more fulfilling your life might look.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.