Many of us have internalized outdated scarcity beliefs that drive over-consumption even when food is plentiful. This is the Abundance Paradox.
What is the Abundance Paradox?
We often hear that large portion sizes and the constant availability of food contributes to overeating. One of the explanations given is that during centuries of scarcity, we evolved to store fuel more efficiently to survive so this backfires in our modern food-abundant environment.
Wait what? When food is abundant, why would we need to overeat? Shouldn’t it be just the opposite?
That’s the abundance paradox.
A paradox is a surprising contradiction. The abundance paradox is that the more food we have access to, the less reason there should be to overeat it. Yet many people struggle when there is an abundance of food anyway.
So why would having access to plenty of food lead people to consume more than they need?
What these reports often overlook is that it isn’t just our biology that causes us to eat too much, it is our psychology.
Scarcity beliefs that lead to over-consumption
Many of us have internalized outdated scarcity beliefs that drive over-consumption even though food is plentiful.
We pick up these messages from parents, advertising, and dieting. Here are some common examples of scarcity thoughts that contribute to overeating:
- Don’t waste food.
- Clean your plate or you don’t get dessert.
- There are starving children in _________.
- Be a good boy and eat all your dinner.
- I better get my share now before someone else takes the last piece.
- It’s a special occasion.
- I paid for it so I want to get my money’s worth.
- It’s free.
- It’s a better value.
- I might not get another chance to eat until later.
- Enjoy it today for tomorrow I’ll diet.
- I never get to eat cookies!
- I deserve this.
If you don’t change beliefs, you won’t change behaviors
Often, the advice we’re given for changing our behavior skips one important step: Changing the underlying beliefs that drive that behavior!
To illustrate this point, consider this common eating tip: “Use a smaller plate when you go through the buffet.” The theory behind this strategy is that since you’ve learned to clean your plate, the smaller it is, the less you’ll eat.
The problem is that unless you change your underlying beliefs about cleaning your plate, when you’re served on a large plate, you’ll still feel compelled to clean it!
How to thrive in a land of abundance
When you recognize that scarcity beliefs are driving over-consumption, you can experiment with new thoughts.
- There’s plenty of food, so there’s no need to eat it all now.
- If I keep eating, I’ll feel uncomfortable; I prefer to feel great.
- Save room for dessert.
- When I’m hungry again, I’ll eat again.
- If this occasion is so special, why ruin it by feeling stuffed at the end of the eating?
- Relax! Food is abundant and will be there when I need it.
- The best way for me to avoid wasting food is to take less.
- Cleaning my plate doesn’t help starving children. I’ll buy and order less then donate the money I save to feed them!
Feelings of scarcity in other areas drive eating too!
It’s also helpful to recognize when other scarcity beliefs are driving over-consumption. Sometimes my coaching clients struggle with wanting to eat when they’re experiencing scarcity in other areas of their lives. A common example is when someone is not making time for rest or pleasurable activities then find themselves craving food.
Here’s another example from a message I got on Facebook:
Recently, Dr. Michelle May (that Am I Hungry? lady) posted “Use abundance thinking instead of scarcity thinking – food, money, time, energy, joy & love. There is PLENTY.”
My initial response was “Yeah, whatever.”
I’m having money problems for the first time in a very, very long time. Since I can’t use my credit cards for any cushion at all, I had to be super careful at the grocery store and get only the cheapest things (good thing I like beans). I couldn’t pay for my prescriptions, either. That has to wait till I get paid the 31st.
Anyhow, I found myself in the grocery store, feeling slightly panicked, and wanting to load up my cart and eat and eat and eat and eat, and I realized that this wasn’t simple stress eating. I’ve done way better with that. This was… *drumroll* Scarcity Behaviour. Just like the good Dr. May talked about. I wanted to eat in reaction to a perceived scarcity of resources. Must hoard because there’s NOT ENOUGH.
It helped me realize a trigger I hadn’t known about and had never explored before.
Overcoming scarcity beliefs with mindful eating
The key to thriving in this land of abundance is to recognize the abundance paradox and our outdated scarcity beliefs. You can then relearn to use your natural cues of hunger and satiety to guide you.
I like to introduce people to mindful eating by teaching them to ask the question “Am I hungry?” before starting or continuing to eat. This creates space between the impulse and the action so they can ask the essential question, “Why do I want to eat (or keep eating)?”
By first examining the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that drive their behaviors, they can then work on replacing them with more new, effective beliefs.
This article was updated from a previous version.
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