Why do we hide food and eat in secret?
What should we do about it?
I will be answering the above questions today and as usual, in Victoria style so get ready to learn something new…!
Can you relate?
I’ve literally lost count of the number of times I’ve eaten in secret. I can’t even remember the first time I did it but I know it was when I was a child. I rebelled right from a young age…! I used to get told off for taking food off other people’s plates (rightly so I guess 😂) or for being too greedy. That was a regular thing that was said to me– being greedy. And who wants to be seen as “greedy”…?!
As an adult, I’d hoard food and hide it and then eat it all in secret not wanting to share. When I binged I’d want to be alone because 1, I didn’t want anyone to see what and how much I was eating and 2, I didn’t want to share as there might not be enough.
When I used to buy binge food I’d feel so ashamed of what I was buying I’d say to the cashier (before self-service was a thing) “Girls night tonight!” so she wouldn’t think it was all for me and judge me(!)
When I used to babysit I’d raid the cupboards and feel deeply ashamed of what I’d eaten and worry for weeks about what they’d think of what I’d eaten.
I’d eat 12 crispy creme doughnuts in one go and then hide the box in next-door neighbour’s bin in the dark.
I’d sneak chocolates and biscuits from the back office at work, hide them in the broom cupboard and then eat them later in the toilet when I didn’t have customers.
I’d wait for my man to have a shower and then I’d dive into the freezer, defrost brownies– that I’d frozen in an attempt to stop me eating them– and eat them hurriedly in the toilet feeling as bad as if I’d pushed an old lady into the road or something.
I’d pour our milk down the sink and be like “Oh no we’ve run out of milk… don’t worry I’ll go and get some for us” 😇 and then eat 2 family-sized chocolate bars in the car parked down the road from our house.
I’d create dessert-eating challenges with the men from the gym (and win!) so that I had an “excuse” to eat that much in one go.
And they’re only a few examples of the shit I used to do! I legit thought I was addicted to chocolate.
At first, eating in secret feels exhilarating and free but then those feelings quickly morph into shame and self-disgust.
When we eat in secret, we’ll often do our best to “hide the evidence.” Almost like we’re hiding a murder weapon or something 😂! There’s SO much SHAME around secret eating– hence why we do it in secret.
“If anyone saw what and how much I actually ate they would be disgusted with me”
But we can’t stop so we keep doing it and so we feel even worse about ourselves, isolating ourselves even more. It’s a very lonely dark place to be but at the same time, you don’t want anyone else close to you. Depending on our environment, we also have to be on high alert to make sure that nobody interrupts us and catches us “in the act.” So we can never truly relax and enjoy our secret eating, not even for a moment. Eating also slightly softens the loneliness so we eat even more searching for comfort… It’s really the feedback loop of Satan.
Secret Eating & Human Nature
My secret eating was purely linked to rebellion from restriction and shame. Shame around food and our bodies go back a long way.
We don’t have to look very far to find the roots of secret eating in history and culture. One of the most well-known stories in the world is the tale of Adam and Eve. That is based on the act of sneaking food.
As the story goes, the first couple was given an all-important food rule:
Do not eat the apple. (I have no idea why they weren’t allowed to eat the apple but there you go.)
They are tempted to break this rule (because– “do not press that red button. Do not think of a pink elephant…”) and they eat the apple. (In fact, I’m sure it was only Eve who got blamed for picking and initiating the eating of the apple, 🤔 funny that…!)
In the story, they assume they’re not being watched when they break the rule. And then soon afterwards, we find Adam and Eve hiding in the garden, feeling terribly guilty, and for the first time, they’re ashamed of their naked bodies. What’s worse, the big guy upstairs then punishes them for sneak-eating the one forbidden food.
As I mentioned, there tends to be an initial “rush” when we sneak food. It’s exciting. It gets our adrenaline pumping. It’s a unique kind of high. But soon after, it’s easy to fall into all the unwanted repercussions of secret eating.
- Feel guilty or ashamed
- Be obsessed about concealing our crime
- Feel shitty in our bodies, bloated, dizzy, tired, and brain foggy from the sugar high and low
- Drop into a deep fear that we’ll gain weight
- Find ourselves in self-judgment, self-hate, and self-attack
- Live in a constant state of agitation around what we just did, and what we will likely do soon again in the future
All these repercussions of sneaking food are very predictable and they can be very uncomfortable. For me, it was SO uncomfortable I wanted to crawl out of my skin. The fear and the shame from the feeling of fullness and bloating were SO overwhelming I can’t even describe it in words. It literally felt like a matter of life or death and I had chosen death by doing it and I was panicking in a way that assumed I was actually going to die unless I felt better immediately and that was impossible.
Secret eating can impact just about every area of our life:
- Our relationships
- Our work
- Our focus
- Our friendships
- Our sexuality
- Our self-worth
- And more
Secret eating can be a haunting secret that we don’t want anyone to know about. One of my previous clients told me that secret eating was “her dirty little secret” that she has told nobody but me. But here’s the thing… you are not alone my love. 🙏🏼
The Psychology of Secret Eating
There’s always a brilliant reason, rooted in biology, psychology, or both, as to why we do an unwanted eating behaviour.
In other words, there are good, logical explanations for why we participate in behaviours that we say we don’t want to do. Knowing these explanations helps us better understand what’s driving us.
Here’s the first brilliant reason rooted in psychology as to why we would sneak food:
We’ve accepted the (toxic) belief that some eating is “bad”.
I have worked with hundreds of women who had the toxic and incorrect belief of “Certain foods are practically “illegal”, and therefore eating them is basically a crime.”
Why do so many people believe that food is “illegal”?
Well, that’s what the world teaches us.
We are taught that weight is our enemy, body fat is our enemy, and if we have too much of these, or if the number on the scale is not acceptable, then our life will be one of misery.
In our day and age, body fat is seen as a sure sign that we are unlovable.
We are taught to believe that having body fat means we will never find true love. That we can’t be our real and truest selves. And that we can never be happy.
So with this kind of toxic input from our media, our music, our social platforms, and more, we naturally conclude that food should be illegal since it’s food that seems to be the culprit in making us fat.
But the problem is, we need food. We crave it. Our biology demands it. We must have it to live. And the more we restrict a certain type of food, the more we’ll crave it and end up eating it in large quantities anyway and so restriction is counterproductive.
So we find an odd middle ground where we see eating as a crime, and we are the criminal who MUST commit the crime of eating. Eating is not ok. It is not safe nor is it accepted but we have to do it anyway. We see food as a threat.
And of course, as any good criminal knows:
The best way to do any crime is to do it quickly and to do it in secret.
But as any good criminal also knows:
We eventually must be punished for our crimes.
So we create self-punishments like:
- Harsh self-attacking thoughts
- Intense guilt and shame
- Dieting and food restriction
- Punishing exercise
- Eating even more food that we fear will make us fat
Are you beginning to see how our inner nature can drive secret eating? Can you understand how the behaviours that we believe are unstoppable and unexplainable actually have brilliant reasons for their existence?
Before we look at how to transform secret eating, let’s take a few moments and understand even more, the factors that might be driving it.
“Good” Foods & “Bad” Foods
Most people (not only clients) I meet have a list in their minds of the “good” foods, and the “bad” foods. Meaning: we have a clear idea of the foods that are healthy for me to eat and a clear idea of the foods that will likely detract from my health or make me gain weight.
Our lists tend to differ, while at the same time, they share some similarities.
For example, some people have meat on their bad list while others consider it good. Most people agree that vegetables are on the good-for-me-to-eat list. Many people agree that sugar is on the bad-guy list.
So here’s the conundrum:
So many of the foods on our “bad list” are some of the tastiest and most alluring:
- Processed food
- Fast food
- Fried food
- Ice cream
- Sugar of all kinds
So if a food is on your bad list, and you eat that bad food, what does that make you?
It makes you a “bad person.” A criminal.
And what do we do to bad people?
We punish them.
This punishment is not just shame, guilt, and self-attack, as you’d expect. We also punish ourselves through:
- Negative self-talk
- Body shaming
- And more
So we have essentially punished ourselves for the crime of eating a food that we ourselves have labelled as illegal.
Can you see the irony here?
When we judge a food as morally bad, we will eventually judge and punish ourselves for eating it.
But for now, let’s take a look at one more brilliant reason why we would sneak food or participate in secret eating.
We all have an inner rebel
Most (not all) of the women I attract into my world (especially those who are struggling with binge eating) HATE rules. They are naturally rebellious.
Rebellion can also stem from childhood from having a lot of rules put on us and feeling like we are being confined and restricted and not able to express our true authentic selves.
When we are older and able to make our own decisions we often rebel against all the rules from childhood.
“You’re only allowed one.”
“Don’t be greedy.”
“You can’t eat that.”
We also rebel against our own rules, especially if we’ve been adherence in the past and followed our food rules, there comes a point where our inner selves are like:
“Fuck this shit I’ve had enough of being held down, I want to be free!”
And so the inner rebel comes out to play and looks like self-sabotage but it’s actually self-protection.
Protection from being kept small. Protection from restriction.
The Rebel is operating from a hidden wisdom and has a message for us that we need to hear.
If you’re being rigid around your diet and if you have food rules then those rules actually need to be challenged.
The Rebel within you is often the one who stands up and says “no” to your own overly intense nutritional and dietary rules. In this way, the Rebel is actually doing its job.
The beauty of getting to know the Rebel archetype is that you can begin to see how it’s actually trying to help you learn something about yourself. It has a good reason for its supposedly bad behaviours.
So it might be helpful to ask yourself:
- What is the Rebel within trying to teach me?
- And what is it asking me to learn about myself, and my relationship with food?
Hint: If there are no rules there is nothing to rebel against…
Guidelines from a place of self-love and nourishment are different to rules.
Now, let’s take a look at one last brilliant reason why we would sneak food or participate in secret eating and in my opinion is THE strongest driving force. And that reason is all about our genetic hardwiring.
How Evolutionary Biology Can Drive Secret Eating
There’s a part of us that’s a bit of an animal. Meaning, we are driven by instincts that have been selected for aeons of time in our genetic evolution.
These instincts originated from a time when we were living a different existence, one that was based on survival.
Simply put, the behaviour of secret eating actually has a brilliant reason for its existence that’s rooted in our survival biology.
Secret eating is actually imprinted in the most primitive and instinctual part of our brain. Specifically:
We are programmed to eat food far away from our competitors.
When an animal in nature makes a kill, it wants that kill all for itself. We aren’t interested in sharing our feast with any other species. And there are plenty of other creatures out there who are more than happy to take from us what is rightfully ours.
In our primal world then, food was a competition, and the best way to enjoy the food that you just caught is to eat it in a secret place.
When we eat in a hiding spot – secret eating – we are banking that no other animals will see us and so we can eat and survive.
Have you ever given your dog or cat a special treat, and they run away to eat it somewhere out of sight?
A hawk will always fly away with its prey and eat it in a secret spot. Carnivorous mammals will most often do the same.
So, secret eating is an important evolutionary strategy.
So how does this apply to modern-day humans?
Have you ever had the experience of having your favourite dessert in the house and you felt compelled to eat it before anyone else could get to it? Or have you ever “hidden” a food somewhere in your house to ensure no one else could find it?
If you grew up with many brothers and sisters, or have many children now, you’ve seen that this food competition is very much alive and well in modern humans!
We can be very territorial around food.
Even if no one else is truly competing for it. Chronic dieters and those with a history of restriction are often instinctually driven to make sure the food that we want most is ours. For this reason:
When we are restricting, our bodies think we are in a famine
It’s literally restriction PTSD. Fear of there not being enough due to all the years of previous restrictions you’ve put yourself through.
And so think about it, imagine you were actually in a famine and there wasn’t enough food. Your biology would drive you to do everything you needed to do in order to survive. This would include making sure you had enough which would mean not sharing, hiding and eating in secret. You would only share with your children, family or partner if they were at risk of starving too.
At a biological level if you are not eating completely unrestricted then your body will think you’re in an environment where there is a food shortage… otherwise, why would you be eating with restrictions…? (Hello diet culture and beauty standards!)
How to Transform Secret Eating and Let Go of Sneaking Food
If you’re ready to say goodbye to the unwanted habit of secret eating and sneaking food, you’re already well on your way. That’s because you have a deeper understanding of what this behaviour is all about.
And with that, here are three of my favourite strategies to help you along your way:
Strategy #1: Allow all foods & eat unrestrictedly
Yep, that sounds scary AND liberating. And it is the only way to have a peaceful and free relationship with food.
Strategy #2: Let Go of the Concept of Good vs Bad Foods
This is all about belief change. Much of our secret eating is driven by our strong beliefs about good foods and bad foods. Here’s the thing:
Yes, there are certain foods that have a good chance to detract from your health and certain foods that have a good chance to enhance your health.
However: food itself is not morally good or morally bad.
Meaning, no candy bars have ever conspired in an evil master plan to rot your teeth. Vegetables don’t have little angelic halos around their heads. Food has no moral value. It’s simply neutral.
Think of a knife. Is a knife good or bad? Well, it depends on how you use it. The same with food.
When you look at food as either “physically health-enhancing” or “emotionally health-enhancing,” and take away the moral power you have given it, then food will have less power over you.
You will have less of a need to punish yourself for eating it.
So, begin to pay attention to how you label food as morally good or morally bad:
- Notice how labelling a food as “bad” will drive you to eat it in secret.
- Observe how this can drive you into self-attacking thoughts if you eat a food on your bad list.
- And notice how looking at the world of food in a black-or-white way simply does not serve you.
Which leads us to our final strategy for transforming secret eating…
Strategy #3: Let Go of the Toxic Belief that Eating is a Crime
The most common reason to eat in secret is that we are convinced that eating is a crime. That food is illegal. We likely believe this because we fear gaining weight, we fear having body fat, and we are in judgment of ourselves for not having the perfect body.
We need to let go of the toxic belief that eating is a crime if we wish to find peace and freedom with food.
I consider that a fact.
How do you let go of this belief?
Here are some suggestions:
- First, set the intention for yourself that you truly wish to let go of this belief. Even though you don’t know how, you can still commit yourself to this outcome.
- Next, notice whenever this belief arises, or when you see it in action. This means that any time you’re about to sneak food, catch yourself. Ask yourself, “Can I choose, in this moment, to eat without hiding? Can I allow myself to eat freely, to be brave enough to see eating as my birthright, and not a crime? Can I allow pleasure with food to be a joy, rather than a criminal act?
- And finally, make sure to find a friend, a coach, or a loved one who you can honestly share with. Decriminalize the act of eating by having someone in your life that you aren’t hiding from. Once again, this is a more powerful strategy than you might imagine.
So many people who engage in secret eating think that they’re the only ones who are doing this unwanted behaviour. That’s simply not true. As stated in the positive, you’re not alone.
Be patient with yourself. It takes time to change our habits, and our beliefs, and to find love for ourselves. Don’t expect perfection. Take baby steps. And celebrate any small successes.
To get support with this explore the different ways you can work with me.