Hoarding and Hiding

Hoarding is the tendency to collect and often consume more than we need. Around the holidays, we eat more, buy more, and collect more than we need – we are faced with buffets and stores offering deals too good to be true. Before we know it, once this period of good cheer has passed, we may find ourselves drowning in extra weight, extra debt and extra stuff. 

But for some people, hoarding is a 365-day concern. Hoarding itself can be a symptom of a wide variety of mental disorders including obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, cognitive decline, developmental disorders, schizophrenia and certain personality disorders.

Food hoarding represents a specific type of hoarding behavior that can involve hiding food, stealing food, and/or secretive eating, with these bouts of secretive eating often resulting in episodes of binge eating or night eating.

On today’s episode, Dr. Oz spoke with an 11-year-old food hoarder. In children, food hoarding can take place for a variety of reasons, including neglect, deprivation, chaotic or disrupted home environments, difficulties in the school environment, disordered eating or other psychological problems. In adults, it can be part of an eating disorder profile with some persons hiding food for the purpose of binging, eating in private, or a way of exerting control over food.

Sadly, food is something that should nourish us, and yet so many people feel shame over how they eat, what they eat, and how they look because of weight-related concerns. As such, food hoarding can be part of a larger portrait of shame about food.  

As a society, we are drowning in "stuff," food and information. Yet, we are starving for connection, presence and meaning. It is ironic that during a time of plenty, many do hoard, and the mechanism of hoarding is often that of seeking control in a world where people feel overwhelmed and undernourished.

What should you do if you suspect someone you know is hoarding food?

Don’t shame them. It is likely they already feel shame about this. By confronting them coldly or cruelly, you are only likely to push the behavior deeper into the shadows.

Provide a means of control. For a child, there may be fear of not getting food that could be fueling this pattern. Providing the child with a sense of control – snacks in a backpack, money for a snack at school, a snack kept with the teacher – could assuage fears of not being able to access food and the subsequent feelings of dyscontrol that could accompany this fear.

Collaborate with teachers, caregivers, physicians and anyone who has contact with the child. Odds are this behavior is happening at home and at school; anyone who is with your child needs to be on the same page. Shame often pushes the hoarder into the shadows – do not repeat that by feeling ashamed of bringing the other members of your child’s life into the conversation about helping him or her. Food hoarding is sometimes part of the picture of a binge-eating disorder or bulimia nervosa, and a more focused workup of such issues may be needed, perhaps by a physician or psychologist with specialization in such clinical issues.

Be patient. The hoarding behavior may be part of a more complex psychological picture. Only by working with a team of professionals and bringing the family together will you be able to start down the slow road toward changing this behavior.

Most of us are NOT food hoarders, but it is possible that you may be engaging in some hoarding behaviors where food is concerned without knowing it.

Don’t keep food in nightstands, desks or cars. Stick to eating in eating places – in the kitchen, at the table, in a restaurant. Sometimes, those idle calories consumed in “non-eating” zones are the least healthy and are the stealth calories that lead to the extra weight.

Don’t overbuy. Those warehouse stores make bulk buying so tempting, but the cost savings can often result in overeating. At the end of the day, that bargain may not be worth it. Shopping at these stores may not feel like hoarding, but if your garage looks like a warehouse, it can contribute to accumulating more stuff than you need and overeating (as well as overconsumption of processed food), while rationalizing it as a bargain. 

Hoarding is a complex behavior and requires complex clinical interventions to address. However, the first step is to remove the shame and seek out help for yourself, your child, or anyone who is struggling with this issue.