What perpetuates food hoarding?: the surprising underlying causes of this survivalist behavior

When I began doing research for this blog post, I admit I did not think food hoarding would be much different than hoarding of other things.  In some ways it’s not.  But I was surprised to read about many of the causes and underlying issues surrounding the behavior of hiding, stealing, or obsessing about “needing” to have much more food than your body requires to survive.  In fact, food hoarding is all about surviving.  According to a website I found on parenting tips, “Often food hoarding is directly connected to significant neglect that the child has experienced in consistently having their basic needs for life sustaining food denied or inadequately met”.  Not having basic survival needs met as a child can perpetuate a pre-mature self-reliancy, and the child might begin to think that he or she needs to continually provide for themselves and be in “survival mode/mentality”.  Needing to take care of him or herself before the child is developmentally ready for this life task can lead to emotional regulation issues, obsessive compulsive behaviors, and challenges adjusting to future life cycle changes.

Another site that popped up in my research was one providing resources for children and adults with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).  In the discussion, the author talks about the high numbers of foster or adoptive children developing RAD, with one of its primary behaviors being food hoarding.  An adoptive child that came from an orphanage or from a family where food was not readily available (perhaps a family with substance abuse issues) may have needed to forage for food in places where it was scarce and unpleasant to search, such as in a dumpster.  While the child may be provided with plenty of healthy food in his/her adoptive family, the mentality of “not enough” or “getting food wherever I can” can stick, as it was imprinted in their minds at a very young age.  If they were neglected, they might still hang onto the fear that their needs will not be met.  This perpetuates survival mentality.

The author of this blog also brought up an interesting point about RAD and food hoarding:  the child or adult might feel that there can never be enough food to fill the gaping hole in their heart.  I see this type of behavior often in the work that I do with people struggling with disordered eating and recovering from trauma.  The “inner hunger”, which many people try to fill with food or alcohol (or other band-aid substances) will never be filled by these material things; in fact, the hole will only get bigger because of the emotional damage that these behaviors inflict.  For many people who develop eating disorders, there is a sense that there “is never enough” — which, when looked at in a deeper way, aligns with a belief they hold that “I am never enough”.  It seems that this theme can be occurring in people with food hoarding issues and with RAD.  How often does food hoarding turn into an ED and vice versa?  In binge eating disorder and bulimia, there are definite links to food hoarding, linking to the almost obsessive feeling of needing to have and eat enough food until all of the feelings have gone numb.

We all have some type of emotional attachment to food.  It can bring up fond memories of grandma’s kitchen or can help you show your family how much you love them.  When attached to the survival fear of not having enough, food can become an obsession.  How does one treat or recover from food hoarding?  I think that it helps to look at the issue from a comprehensive perspective:  what has the person’s life been like?  Has there been a time when he or she struggled with having enough money to buy food?  Survivalism and the fear of not having basic needs met can last a lifetime and leave an imprint on one’s soul.  Try to put yourself in the person’s shoes: to them, their behavior is serving a purpose.  They need to have as much food as possible to ensure survival against a threat (a natural disaster, a war, a famine, etc).  Food is comforting to them.  Don’t judge; try to understand the causes, reasoning, and purpose of the behavior.

Ultimately, it is the person struggling with the problem who needs to define it is a problem.  As with all types of recovery journeys, it is only theirs; no one can do it for them.  If you see that it is impacting their life in a negative and limiting way, gently talk with them about your observations and then seek help.  The issue is not about the food. I feel like I should scream that from the rooftops sometimes!  It can be relieving to discover that the food does not have to play such a major role in one’s life and that when the deeper issues are nurtured, peace with food and self can be found.

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