Your Brain on Malnutrition: Scarcity Mindset

I’ve done a load of YouTube videos on “your brain on malnutrition” but this is such an important aspect of understanding your anorexia or eating disorder behaviours that I’m going to start a series on it in this blog too.


Scarcity mindset is what your brain adopts when it believes that resources are scarce. I talk about this a lot in the book because I believe that this scarcity mindset is at the bottom of many of the behaviours that we experience with eating disorders.

When you persistently restrict food, you give your brain stem the notion that food is scarce. Remember, your brain stem reacts rather than thinks. Your brain stem reacts to data it is given. From your brain’s point of view, if you are not eating enough food to cover your daily needs, then it must be because there is not enough food available to you in your environment: famine. Food scarcity.

Food is a basic human need. You cannot live without food, water and oxygen. So, if your brain believes that food is scarce it needs to act accordingly. Much of how your brain reacts to perceived food scarcity will depend on your genetics and your personal life circumstances. For me, my brain reacted to perceived food scarcity by telling me to eat very little and move a lot — my brain wanted me to migrate.

But that’s not all. Prolonged perceived food scarcity led my brain to develop all manners of other anxieties and behaviours related to general resource scarcity. I call this the “scarcity mindset.” Some elements of these for me were:

  • hoarding food
  • hoarding frequently used items such as plastic bags, toothpaste, and cling film
  • stealing food and other items such as loo roll
  • fear of spending money
  • obsessive about checking bank account and saving money
  • only using the car when absolutely needed and obsessively trying to safe fuel
  • never taking a day off work in order to always be accumulating as much money as possible
  • always taking extra shifts at work when possible
  • feeling stressed and anxious if other people used my resources — e.g. ate my hoarded food, used my loo roll, asked me to drive places
  • working 3 jobs back to back in order to accumulate as much money as possible
  • not wearing new clothes as wanting to keep them for later
  • tendency not to visit healthcare providers and feeling like having to do so was a weakness I could not afford to get in the habit of succumbing to.
  • tendency to put off self care – washing hair, showering – as long as possible to save on water costs but also because it felt like a survival advantage not to “need” to do these things as often as others
  • obsessive about keeping physical endurance levels high as if I was training to run away from a zombie apocalypse.

These are just some that spring to mind.

Now I think you can see from the last three more clearly that my brain was acting as if it was preparing me to be able to survive armageddon. If you look at this from a biological point of view, and with the understanding that human evolution would have been largely dependent on our ability to respond to times of famine and general resource scarcity in a way that maximised our potential for economising in order to survive, you can see that my behaviours are entirely appropriate for a brain that thinks that resources are scarce.

This all happened really gradually, by the way. It wasn’t like this in the first couple of years of anorexia but these tendencies gradually started to develop.

One of the worst parts of all this for me was the cognitive dissonance. My logical brain knew that resources were not scarce, but my brain-stem area was reacting as if they were, because I was acting as if they were. My behaviours (not eating enough) were speaking to that reactionary part of my brain, so all the reasoning in the world wouldn’t convince it that it was okay to take a day off work in order to attend a friend’s wedding. I did that, by the way. Twice. I missed two good friends’ weddings because I didn’t want to let a shift at my minimum wage job go.

I hated how tight this all made me. For example, my logical brain knew I had enough money to by my friends a round of drinks in the pub, but my brain stem area didn’t believe that. This resulted in a large internal conflict for me, and is another one of the reasons I was so isolated. Spending money was so stressful for me that the only sustainable option felt like retreating from society. This doesn’t help, as being less social gave me more time to work, and after years of doing nothing but working, I had lost most of my friends anyway …

I hope this gives you some idea of what I am talking about when I say “scarcity mindset.”  I expect that many of you reading this will resonate. The good news, is that if you eat without restriction, if you allow yourself to feast in the way that you really want to, if you open the floodgates to food, your brain learns that food is no longer scarce, and the scarcity mindset reverts.

I have no problem spending money now.

I love to take time off work.

I haven’t stolen a loo roll in 10 years.

My brain no longer acts as if it is training me up to be able to survive the end of the world because my actions no longer give it reason to believe that the holocaust is coming. And that started with the food. It began with eating without restriction. You see, you can convince anyone else in the world that you are eating. You can bullshit your family and friends and your treatment providers if you want, but you can’t bullshit your own brain.

Your brain knows if you are restricting food, and it will react accordingly. Recovery is not about convincing anyone else that you are eating enough, it is about convincing your own brain that food is not scarce.

 

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What do you think?

  1. So poignant,so honest and spot on.The work you do on all of our behalf’s will no doubt leave a legacy

  2. Tabs…seriously one of the most ‘hit home’ observation pieces on the anorexia mindset…”Scarcity Mindset’ I have ever read. The honesty and reality of the malady you observe and describe so, so very well are crucial, vital words to inform and, more importantly stimulate those who seek recovery and education for those who share breath-space with them. Flabbergasted by this particular post…you do wonders. Thank you, merci bien for your work and effort. Much admiration.

  3. I really, really want to believe that this is true–namely that these mental patterns could go away. But I have anecdotes to the contrary.

    Some of my relatives have lived through food scarcity. They’re fine now, but despite DECADES, heck, probably half a century of living with sufficient housing and food, they still act like this. Hoarding weird things, wearing clothes until they’re more holes than clothes, etc. It’s one thing to be frugal, it’s another to save every ketchup packet from the fast food place for the past 25 years.

    Another anecdote–I’ve been a caregiver for many elderly people, and for folks who grew up during the Great Depression (USA here), many of them still hoard food, napkins, etc. I vividly recall the relief one of my patients felt when I was willing to throw away his single-serving saltine collection in the nursing home so that he didn’t have to face the stress of throwing it out himself.

    So–any thoughts on why these patterns didn’t go away for these folks, and why it did for you?

    • Yes, because I worked to re-wire these patterns as well as getting out of malnutrition. If a person doesn’t recognize and consciously consistently act to change the behaviours, the patterns will stay.

      Full recovery = nutritional rehabilitation PLUS neural rewiring.

      (Hence, Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover! :D)