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*Pinterest boards full of recipes and photos of rich foods I never allowed myself to eat.
*Cooking dinner for other people, but not eating the food myself.
*An obsession with baking, giving away cakes and cookies to other people but eating none of it.
*Working in food service, where I was constantly surrounded by food, tempted by food, but refused to eat any of it.
I worked at an ice cream shop, Smoothie King, as a waitress at a breakfast diner, and finally, behind the deli at a Fresh Market, serving mac n cheese and sliced deli meats to posh grocers who somehow justified spending gratuitous ratios of their paychecks on food. The patrons at Fresh Market by turns disgusted and fascinated me: the man who purchased expensive slices of prosciutto alongside an organic version of pepsi and homeopathic Tums. The woman with her cart full to brimming, planning an elaborate (or in my mind, unnecessary) dinner for her friends. The customers who asked me, blithely, what my favorite pasta salad was, unaware that I hadn't allowed myself to eat pasta in years. I always lied, pointing to a bow-tie pesto dish that was a decided hit. "That one," I'd tell them, and scoop a pound of it into a plastic tube for them to devour later in front of the latest episode of Lost. Or at least, that's how I imagined happy people ate. In cozy sweatpants, sitting next to someone they loved, sharing a meal, TV show, and laughter all at once.
I always brought my lunch to work with me, sad assortments of chopped fruit and nuts, hummus with raw vegan bread (yes, it's a thing), roasted vegetables and thinly sliced strips of tofu. Sometimes, the market would offer employees day old bread, pastries, or seasonal items that were overstocked and didn't sell. Sometimes, I'd take a sleeve of chocolate chip cookies, a package or two of chips, a few slices of cake, slipping them into my lunch bag. Later, I'd eat a bit or two, feeling guilt and shame course through my veins. I'd either destroy the food, hide it somewhere, or give it away to some unsuspecting classmate.
I wasn't fully aware of my preoccupation with food, partially because I was busy mopping floors and making huge batches of chicken salad, but also because I didn't want to admit that my attitude toward food was anything but normal.
Food hoarding is just one of many signs of disordered eating. Those with any type of eating disorder (Anoreixa, Bulimia, Binge Eating, EDNOS) may hoard food, but it's especially common in those with anorexia.
Living in a state of semi-starvation has been shown to make individuals hyper-preoccupied with food. They may collect recipes, spend inordinate amounts of time looking at pictures of food, cook food but not eat it, or intentionally work in environments where they're surrounded by food. In the famous Minnesota starvation study, researchers observed that those subjected to a semi-starvation diet were plagued by incessant thoughts of food and eating. Food became a principal topic of conversation, reading, and daydreams.
The study went something like this: a group of 36 young men volunteered for the study, which took place in 1944 during World War II. The goal was for the men to lose 25 percent of their body weight (they all entered the study at a normal, healthy weight).
For three months, they ate a diet of 3,200 calories a day. This was followed by six months of a semi-starvation diet of 1,570 calories a day between two meals (breakfast and lunch). Then, there were three months of a "restricted rehabilitation" period during which they ate 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day. The final 2 months were totally unrestricted, and the men were allowed to eat whatever they wanted. Their diet consisted of potatoes, root vegetables, bread, and macaroni. They were also required to work 15 hours a week in the lab, walk 22 miles per week, and participate in educational activities 25 hours each week. Throughout this 14 month time frame, researchers measured the physiological and psychological changes brought on by near starvation.
Aside from dramatic weight loss, the men suffered severe decreases in their strength and stamina, body temperature, heart rate, and sex drive. Hunger made the men obsessed with food. They would dream about food, fantasize about food, and talk about food, constantly. Further, they reported fatigue, irritability, depression, and apathy.
These physical and mental signs are classic in patients with eating disorders. Because the participants in the Minnesota Starvation study didn't have eating disorders, they probably would have eaten more food were it made available. Those with eating disorders however, live in a world where food is everywhere, all the time. Hoarding food may quell mental or emotional distress, underscore an individuals' self-satisfaction and ability to deny themselves food, or simply be a side effect of a co-occurring disorder, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is more common in patients with anorexia than in the general population, and anorexia is more common in patients with OCD than in the general population. The exact reasons why are not totally known, but patients with anorexia and/or OCD share some common traits: preoccupation with control, excessive orderliness and cleanliness, meticulous attention to detail, stubbornness, and rigidity to name a few.
As I worked my way through recovery and began eating enough, I noticed a few changes. For starters, I wasn't thinking about food constantly. I stopped looking up recipes and my Pinterest account went dormant. I was more amiable, outgoing, friendlier, and happier. I wasn't constantly cold or tired. I could run longer and faster. I slept better, because I wasn't nudged awake by hunger. And finally, mercifully, I stopped collecting food. I no longer felt anxious if I were to run out of food, and no longer felt compelled to bake cakes and pastries that went uneaten.
People with eating disorders can be good at hiding these behaviors. We intentionally isolate ourselves, make excuses to avoid eating with others, and assure everyone, constantly, that we're okay. Hoarding food is not a normal behavior, and usually rooted in something deeper. If you or someone you love is engaging in these beaviors, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find a treatment center or therapist near you HERE, or find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE.