The Psychology of Scarcity

Mother and baby

The Pediatric Academic Societies met in Boston not long ago and, as so often happens when health professionals gather, the subject of the childhood obesity epidemic was on the table. Dr. Rachel Gross of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine told the group about the study she had led. The city’s Bellevue Hospital is vital to the well-being of low-income families, and that is where the researchers found 201 young mothers to interview.

All had infants under six months old, and they were asked about breastfeeding, and whether they added cereal to bottled formula, and whether they let their babies eat as much as they wanted, or tried to set limits, or urged and cajoled the babies to eat more. As it turns out, exercising control of any kind on infants is counterproductive, because a child will then be left either slightly hungry or overstuffed.

Either way, Dr. Gross theorizes that a child’s inner hunger setpoints can get messed up, and she or he loses the ability to self-regulate. Dr. Gross reports:

We found that food insecurity is related to controlling feeding practices, which have been shown to increase child obesity. These controlling feeding practices involved both restriction, in which parents limit the infant’s intake even if the infant is hungry, and pressuring, in which the parent encourages the infant to eat more even if the infant is full.

Food insecurity is a simple phrase, compared to some of the terminology heard at medical conferences. It mainly affects parents, and it’s the fear of running out of food and not being able to get any more. In this study, about a third of the mothers met the definition of food-insecure, despite the fact that all were participants in the WIC program (Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children).

Hans Villarica, who writes for and produces the health channel for The Atlantic, framed his summary of the study in a slightly different way, to catch the attention of readers who have asked themselves the question:

Why are kids from poor households so often overweight?

The journalist also gives sources for anyone who wants to look into the matter more deeply, including a link to a PDF file containing “The Core Food Security Module,” the psychological test used to measure a respondent’s degree of food insecurity. The study’s title is “Food Insecurity and Obesity-Promoting Maternal Infant Feeding Styles and Practices in Low-Income Families,” and it will be published in Pediatrics.

Of course, food insecurity can directly affect children, too. Chris Bohjalian’s novel The Buffalo Soldier is the heartbreaking story of a little boy who has been moved several times, without warning, from foster home to institution, and from institution to foster home. You never know when you’ll land in a new strange place, or what you’ll find there. In his current foster home, he is wary enough to save up food items to tide him over on the next unexpected relocation. The foster parents find his stash and deduce that he was planning to run away, which of course leads to more difficulties.

The trouble with food is, it’s one of those subjects that almost noone seems to be totally sane about. People inherit ideas about food and eating and body image which, on closer examination, turn out to be irrational, but the power of tradition is strong, and the power of family influence is monumental. A parent with a skewed perspective will almost certainly inject that perspective into a child’s mind.

If you look closely enough, almost everyone has some little pocket of insanity around eating issues and weight issues. Given all the personal quirks and societal pressures connected with food, eating, and weight, people have enough to cope with. The last thing anyone needs is to be undermined by the widespread availability of cheap pseudo-foods that were specifically designed to be addictive.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food-insecure mothers associated with childhood obesity,” News Medical, 04/30/12
Source: “Study of the Day: How the Fear of Not Having Enough Food Leads to Obesity,” The Atlantic, 04/30/12
Image by alastc (Alastair Campbell), used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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