Unhealthy behaviors and attitudes around food and eating can have any number of origins, including through the experience of starvation or trauma.
A history of food insecurity can lead to food hoarding, or contribute to other disordered eating behaviors that may develop into more complex mental health conditions, including binge eating disorder (BED).
And a history of trauma can also contribute to the development of hoarding behaviors, as individuals may feel a sense of control and safety in collecting and saving resources.
What is Food Hoarding?
Food hoarding describes the tendency to collect, store, or steal food. When possible, food hoarders often gather more food than they or their families reasonably need, and these individuals also sometimes have difficulty throwing away expired foods or spoiled items.
This behavior is frequently driven by a fixation on “needing” food, regardless if there is already enough food around. And while more research on the condition is needed, some studies have noted that the fixation on gathering food is separate from the fixation on eating food. 
Food hoarding can manifest as stocking up on food at home, or carrying food, snacks, or meals around. The condition is often a coping mechanism, and regularly connected to a past involving food insecurity. 
What Causes Food Hoarding?
Like most mental health issues, food hoarding can be caused by a variety of factors. In many cases, it’s likely that several factors work together to develop and sustain a hoarding disorder.
The act of hoarding food has been connected to anxiety in general, and one anxiety disorder in particular: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
One study found as many as 30% of participants with OCD exhibited hoarding behavior, though the study didn’t look exclusively at hoarding food. 
Aside from manifesting as a compulsion, hoarding food may offer someone struggling with anxiety a sense of control and safety. The action of proactively collecting food—and having food to spare—may also help them cope with anxiety directed at future insecurity.
History of Trauma
A difficult upbringing or history of trauma can also lead to the development of food hoarding behaviors later in life.
Past experiences of food insecurity or starvation are the most direct connection. These experiences can imprint the need for food at a young age, which can then “stick” in the mind and become a fixation. 
But other experiences of trauma can also potentially lend themselves to this condition. Children who experienced neglect or were forced to take care of themselves before they were developmentally ready may carry around a “survival mode” mindset that contributes to food hoarding. 
And those who experienced abuse or other forms of physical or emotional trauma may lean on food hoarding behavior as an attempt to self-soothe, or create a sense of comfort. 
Substance Use Disorders
Connections have also been drawn between the urge to hoard food and substance use disorders (SUDs).
Studies on the subject are nascent, but one found that patients in the early stages of SUD recovery showed increased food hoarding behavior.  It’s possible in these cases that the fixation on food functioned as a substitute for a fixation on drugs or alcohol.
Those who struggle with SUDs also commonly have histories of trauma and co-occurring anxiety disorders, which may also support this connection.
Food Hoarding and Eating Disorders
Food hoarding has also been tied to a number of more serious disordered behaviors around food, which have the potential to develop into clinical eating disorders.
One study found a tendency among patients who had experienced food insecurity in the past to be overweight or obese. The researchers surmised that food insecurity not only promoted dependence on cheaper, more processed, and calorie-dense foods—which are often involved in binge eating episodes—but encouraged patients to engage in overeating behaviors generally when food was available. 
Another study connected food hoarding to a higher risk of developing binge eating disorder. In this case, the link drawn by researchers was the compulsive behavior driving both conditions. And patients who engaged in food hoarding behavior in particular were found to struggle with more severe binge eating episodes. 
Food Hoarding Treatment
Food hoarding is still being studied, including aspects of the condition that can be helped with treatment. Still, it’s likely that some types of therapy can help alleviate symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most commonly-employed types of treatment to help people overcome disordered behavior, including those associated with many eating disorders. This method teaches people to first recognize their unhelpful thought and behavior patterns, then redirect these thoughts in a healthier way, with the goal of eventually eliminating them all together.
Nutritional counseling may also be helpful in restoring a healthy relationship with food and addressing any physical health issues that may have resulted from food hoarding or a history of starvation.
And for those who struggle with food hoarding and co-occurring conditions, additional therapy or medications may be useful. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been found to help people with anxiety disorders, and particularly those with OCD.  Though, medication is often considered a secondary treatment, which should be used alongside more traditional therapy.
Finding Help for Food Hoarding
Food hoarding, and the disordered eating behaviors it may lead to, can have serious physical, emotional, and social consequences. In these cases, early intervention may help improve the chances of successful recovery.
A primary care physician is an excellent first point of contact for addressing concerns about food hoarding or eating disorders. These experts can conduct a physical exam to assess any health concerns related to these conditions and provide referrals to specialists who can help with treatment.
Therapists or psychologists can also be a crucial component of recovery for people struggling with food hoarding. A mental health specialist can help alleviate any symptoms that may be related to mood disorders or past traumas.
Regardless of where you look for help, it’s important to remember that recovery from food hoarding and eating disorders is possible. Seeking help is an essential first step, and with the proper treatment and support, you can develop a healthy relationship with food and find freedom from the grip of these conditions.
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Last Updated on July 31, 2023
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com