“Our ancestors did not have a constant supply of food. When a large animal – a whale, a bison, a woolly mammoth or an elephant – was killed, everyone feasted, gorged… it might be weeks or months before another big kill, so large amounts had to be eaten quickly and then stored in the body for the times of scarcity that were sure to come.
This is an ancient or atavistic memory that calls us to eat all we can now, even if we are not hungry, just in case there won’t be any food tomorrow… there is something deep in our primitive brain that still fears starvation, scarcity, famine.”
– Jan Chozen Bays, “Mindful Eating”
Remember the panic-buying we witnessed when the Covid-19 crisis first hit?
Here in the UK, there wasn’t a food shortage but just the possibility of one made people panic – ironically bringing about the very shortages they feared.
There were similar experiences worldwide: supermarkets struggling to keep up with demand as people began to hoard food and supplies.
The danger of scarcity led to stockpiling.
This is what happens when we diet.
When we exert outside control on our eating, rather than respect internal cues, our bodies perceive the restriction as scarcity or famine.
When we break the diet, as we inevitably will, we’re compelled by a primal instinct to eat more than we need, in order to prepare for further food shortages.
When we say “I’ll start the diet again tomorrow”, we confirm the impending deprivation and trigger the order to binge.
Our bodies store the excess food we eat as fat to help us prepare for future famines. We hate them for gaining weight but it’s not their fault. They’re simply doing what they’re supposed to do.
When we begin to normalise our eating, we focus on giving ourselves full or unconditional permission to eat exactly what we want. In doing so, we prove to our minds and our bodies there’s no famine, no scarcity. Therefore, there’s no need to “stock up” by bingeing.
It’s probably one of the hardest parts of the process of recovery because it swims against the tidal wave of diet culture, but it’s possibly the most rewarding.
Every time we give ourselves permission to eat what we really want, we chip away at our old diet mindset and move a step closer to making peace with food.
Ultimately, we can learn to relax and enjoy food, and that fear of famine “deep in our primitive brain” can stand down, safe in the knowledge we’ll never diet again.
Chozen Bays, J. (2009), Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food. Boston: Shambhala.