Deprivation Binge

I Grew Up With the Shame of Food Insecurity. Decades Later, I Still Obsess Over What I

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I remember watching my mother stand at the supermarket register, anxiously tugging at her shaggy dark blonde hair, repeatedly tucking it behind an ear. Her green eyes, amplified by thick glasses with rose-tinted plastic frames, scanned the running total. She’d hold an envelope open with one hand and whip out coupons like a blackjack dealer, placing them on each corresponding item to make sure the cashier scanned them together.

She knew the total before we got to the checkout. She used a ballpoint pen to calculate it on a palm-size notepad while she shopped. To be safe, though, she always loaded the conveyor belt with the most essential food items first—sandwich fixings, eggs, milk, log-shaped rolls of fatty ground beef, canned tuna, canned and frozen vegetables, soups, and pasta. If budget allowed, she’d add chicken, fresh fruit, snacks, or a bag of chips last.

My mom was a full-time airline reservation agent and my dad ran a small janitorial franchise in a suburb of Denver, but their bank account always teetered near zero. Before instant bank transactions, my mom knew she could write a check Friday evening to buy groceries for the whole week. She incurred overdraft fees, but three meals materialized every day. She made the cheapest ingredients stretch, carefully portioned to make sure we ate. But we were all too aware that money was in short supply.

A study published in 2018 found that children who grow up with food insecurity more frequently emotionally overeat and disregard satiety. Even when they no longer experience scarcity, they worry they could again.

“We know when people don’t have regular access to food, they tend to hoard it,” explains Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of the forthcoming book, The Diet Free Revolution. She emphasizes that hoarding in the face of scarcity “is a very healthy and natural way of thinking. It’s part of survival.”

At meals, mom preferred to divvy our food among plates rather than watch my brother, my sister, and I argue over who got more. Mom got what was left, and in hindsight, I wonder if her never-ending diet was an excuse to give herself the smallest portion. Dinnertime was a competition for who could shovel food into their mouth the fastest. Sometimes, if the grocery budget was slim, hunger pangs lingered after we were done. My stomach seemed to always volley between growling for more and overflowing.

My mom cooked as healthfully as she could, with vegetables at every meal (even though they usually came from a can). We never drank soda. Sugary snacks were special treats at holidays. When they did come, I’d be sure to eat mine before anyone else could ask to share. The rare candy bar would go down with little chance of tasting it—chomp, chomp, chomp.

But despite it all, I was a chubby kid. I took comfort in food. If I had a difficult day at school, I would peel slices of bologna out of the package, arrange them on a paper towel, then pop them in the microwave for 20 seconds. When they came out steaming and dripping with fat, I’d tear out the center of each slice to eat first. That part stayed cool and supple. I’d suck on the crispy edges, letting the salty oil spread over my tongue. Although my mom probably noticed the missing food, I felt like this was my own little secret indulgence, eaten locked in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet.

It wasn’t just bologna. I’d sneak off with cellophane-wrapped pieces of American cheese, hot dogs swiped from an open package, handfuls of cereal stuffed into my pocket, or a stealthy scoop of leftovers, my intrusion concealed with a stir. All were consumed behind closed doors. Embarrassment drove me to binge alone. I hated my changing body, but I also craved the soothing comfort of filling my belly. According to Conason, feeling this kind of stigmatization is not unusual when “the urge to feed ourselves is part of a culture of shame.”

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