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Scarcity Mindset Triggers Both Weight Gain & Weight Loss During COVID

covid weight loss

The Quarantine 15, as many are calling it, or the weight gain from overeating associated with COVID-19, is not the only problem we are seeing when it comes to weighty matters.  Calorie restriction, and with it, weight loss, is also becoming more of a problem.  Both may be triggered by a Scarcity Mindset. Stephen Covey initially coined this term along with an Abundance Mindset in his best-selling bookThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Scarcity mentality refers to people seeing life as a finite pie, so that if one person takes a big piece, that leaves less for everyone else. Abundance mentality is a belief that there is enough to go around for everyone.

Weight gain during COVID-19 has been in the news a lot.  According to an article in WebMD dated May 21, 2020, “In the last 30 days, more than half a million Facebook users have engaged with……the terms quarantine 15 and #quarantineweight gain.”  But I have also seen a 15-20% uptick in the number of individuals seeking help for the first time for Anorexia (restricting food intake) which does not appear to making the news. Like the weight gainers, my new patients have all linked their eating disorder to being quarantined for COVID-19 as well. I believe that both groups are struggling with a scarcity mentality. 

While the weight gain problem seems to be on everyone’s mind, and we have seen a lot of churn in the media on how to manage eating while sheltering in place, I don’t think this restricting/weight loss phenomenon is on the radar of the public or the professionals who treat such disorders. However, given the seriousness of Anorexia, it should be. 

Scarcity and COVID-19

Taking into consideration the devastating impact that COVID-19 is having in the U.S. and the fact that we are dealing with scarcity, the likes of which most of us have never seen, the overeating and restricting may get worse before they get better if scarcity is a driver.  It is very important that the public, and especially practitioners, understand this connection and how to intervene effectively, i.e. if you are seeing patients in your practice that are suddenly losing or gaining weight, refer them to an eating disorder specialist.

Currently, the entire country is at risk for having such a scarcity mindset.  For starters, millions of people are out of work, thousands of businesses are failing and the goods and services that we have all come to expect are disappearing.  New York city, a shining example of how to conquer COVID, is in trouble again.  A quote from a reporter from the New York Post on October 1, 2020 states “As many as half of all New York City bars and restaurants could shutter permanently within the next six months due to the coronavirus, according to a stunning new audit released Thursday by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.” 

This would take a terrible toll on New York’s economy. The audit pointed out that in 2019, the city’s restaurant industry accounted for 317,800 jobs, paid out $10.7 billion in wages and made more than $27 billion in taxable sales, the report said. By April, as the coronavirus gripped the city and government mandates nixed indoor service, the industry’s employment tanked to 91,000 jobs, according to the audit.”  An initiative to expand outdoor dining should help.  We’ll see….winter is coming.

But what it means for New Yorkers is that the local bar, pub, or restaurant they love may go belly up. No more of their favorite menu items from that establishment……ever.  That realization could, and likely would, trigger a scarcity mindset.  One way of responding is to eat out “before it’s too late” even if it isn’t safe. The scarcity mindset predisposes us to taking chances we ordinarily might not take.

What is a Scarcity Mindset?

The scarcity mindset is a behavioral phenomenon that has a biological component, which means that we may experience it in situations for which it was not intended, kind of like the adrenalin rush we get in near miss situations.  That adrenalin rush is known as the fight or flight response.  It was there to protect us from our predators back when we first showed up on earth.  Today, we rarely need the fight or flight response, but it is still there, hard-wired into our brains.  It is actually not particularly functional these days because it gets triggered by things that are not life-threatening, like your boss giving you the look.  

The scarcity mindset is similar.  It was hardwired into our brains, in part so that we would search for the food and other resources we needed to survive.  Without it, we would have remained in our comfy caves and starved to death instead of hunting, fishing and gathering like the good cavemen and women that we were.  

Like fight or flight, the scarcity mindset wasn’t particularly functional in the U.S. given that we are the wealthiest country in the world.  In fact, most people with a scarcity mindset were seen as neurotic, especially those with disordered eating because food and other resources have been plentiful in the U.S. for most people for most of our history.  Not anymore.  Now the scarcity is real.  Individuals people who might not have started over-eating or restricting are doing so in response to this very real scarcity that the pandemic has triggered.

Here’s How Scarcity Works for the Anorexic:


If you consistently restrict food intake, your brain registers that food is scarce. The part of the brain thought to be involved is the brainstem.  When it senses that food is scarce, it adapts by messaging us to restrict food intake (since there isn’t enough) and keep moving (so we can find more).   Again, this was important early in our history for survival.  If you are Anorexic or if you know someone who is, you will recognize both of these behaviors.  Besides not eating, I have seen 60-pound women sneak and do 100 sit-ups in the middle of the night because the urge to be active is so intense.

But why restrict in the time of COVID? Because restricting food feels like you are controlling something in the face of all of the scarcity you are experiencing. Your classes or onsite work are cancelled, your company or school may be floundering or your children may be out of school for the foreseeable future. 

These can all trigger scarcity thinking.  If that happens and you get upset you may lose your appetite. The other thing that I am seeing is that the shelf-stable foods like peanut butter, rice, pasta and especially frozen desserts, were the things that people stocked up on initially.  These are “fear foods” for individuals with Anorexic tendencies, so when their parents, husbands or roommates stock up on such items, they will likely not be comfortable eating them. Now the foods they are comfortable eating are literally scarce.

It often starts quite innocently.  In other words, it doesn’t necessarily start out as restricting. But after a day or so of quarantining and not eating such individuals realize they have lost weight.  Everyone else is worrying about how much they are eating and how much weight they are gaining.  The individual thinks “Perhaps I am actually handling the strain better than most.  Maybe I am more disciplined about food than I realized.”  In no time said individual has lost 8 lbs.! What the?  But instead of being terrified, she is secretly thrilled. And thus, it begins.  

Here’s How It Works for the Over-eater:

For those of my patients who started gaining weight because of being quarantined, hoarding food was a natural response to the bare shelves in their grocery stores. Just looking at the empty shelves of toilet paper, frozen vegetables, bread, milk etc. triggered a scarcity mindset in even the most laid-back individual.  Panic buying was rampant for a month or so, and not just for those who have issues with eating, although they would have been more at risk.  

The upshot for many again was to stock up on prepared foods, which is the worst kind of food if you are watching your weight.  The thought process was something like this: Who knows when it will be safe to go to the grocery store again… Better to have some comfort foods around before they disappear altogether.  Actually, better to have a lot of comfort foods, doesn’t mean I have to eat them….at least not all at once.  I had better stock up on the ones I really love. So that is the hoarding part.  

Then comes the bingeing/overeating mindset.  You have all of these tantalizing snacks in the house that you normally would not have, and you are also stressed by the circumstances.  The voice in your head sounds like “I am stressed.  I am bored. I need a distraction.  I deserve a treat.  No one is going to fault me under these circumstances. There is no one here but me.  So what if I indulge a bit now and gain a little weight, I’ll lose it before I have to go back to the office.” 

So what is the alternative? An abundance mindset.  In an article  The Law of Scarcity and Abundance” by Evan Tarver   the author lists the traits of a scarcity vs an abundance mindset.

Traits of a Scarcity Mindset:

1. Lack of experience and knowledge
2. Lack of available opportunities
3. Over-eagerness
4. Belief that you are a victim of circumstance

Traits of an Abundance Mindset:

1. Good natured attitude
2. Quiet confidence that allows opportunity to present itself, rather than you frantically looking for opportunity
3. Strict set of values which keeps you centered, regardless of the situation
4. Belief that you always provide value, and if people disregard your value, it’s only their loss
5. Focus on the journey, and the knowledge that your journey will end in the full realization of your potential

Scarcity Symptoms for Those With Disordered Eating

Many individuals suffering from both Anorexia and over-eating engage in other behaviors that are driven by the scarcity mindset.  These include: 

  • Hoarding, especially food, but also things like plastic bags, toilet paper, toothpaste, etc.
  • Stealing food from parents, roommates, grocery stores
  • Or overspending for food 
  • Conserving resources such as money, gas, utility bills in the extreme
  • Never taking a day off work in order to always be accumulating as much money as possible and always taking extra shifts at work .  This is relevant in that the only time such individuals relax is when they are bingeing
  • Feeling stressed and anxious about sharing resources with family, friends, roommates 
  • Tendency not to visit healthcare providers and viewing it as a weakness or constantly visiting healthcare providers….becoming psychosomatic
  • Tendency to put off self-care – washing hair, showering, brushing teeth, changing clothes
  • Or obsessively engaging in self-care routines -hours washing one’s face, hair, body
  • Obsessive exercising 
  • Or total refusal to engage in any physical activity – sleeping for long periods
  • Rituals, lots of rituals – hand-washing, counting, when to eat, where to eat, how to eat and what to eat…..

The scarcity mindset seems to come from a common belief or from early conditioning that we don’t deserve abundance. This belief spans everything from food and resources to love and respect. Thus, some of us are more at risk than others under ordinary circumstances.  Presently, many more of us are at risk because of our current circumstances.  If you are a health care practitioner, the list above combined with weight loss or weight gain is a sign that your patient is in trouble. 

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out to a health care provider that has expertise in the treatment of restricting or over-eating.

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