Secretly eating a doughnut in bed
  • September 8, 2023

Why Am I Secret Eating? [& How To Stop!]

  Have you ever found yourself eating certain foods only in secret, away from everyone else? Staying up late to […]

 

Have you ever found yourself eating certain foods only in secret, away from everyone else? Staying up late to eat, when everyone else has gone to bed? Or hiding certain wrappers of foods you’ve eaten?

You may be engaging in secret eating.

This article is going to break down what secret eating is, why it happens and how to stop it.

 

What is secret eating?

Secret eating is a form of disordered eating where an individual deliberately eats in private, concealed from others (1, 2). It can also look like hiding the evidence of eating, or only eating at times when nobody is around.

Whilst secret eating is not considered an eating disorder in itself, it is considered a possible behavioural indicator in the diagnostic criteria of binge eating disorder (BED) (3). However the two can also be quite separate. Not every episode of secret eating is a binge, and not every individual with BED will experience secret eating.

Secret eating can quite commonly begin in childhood, develop into adolescence and remain prevalent among adults. One study found that over 25% of it’s children participants were sneaking, hiding or hoarding food (4), whilst another study found this figure to increase to almost 35% in adolescents (2).

It’s important to understand, even though it’s quite common, it’s still a form of disordered eating.

 

Girl in a grey jumper goes to the fridge to get some chocolate and eat it in secret

 

Secret eating and eating disorders

Engaging in secret eating can heighten the risk of developing an eating disorder, or could potentially already be a sign of an eating disorder (5).

Studies have also shown that secretive eating is also associated with depressive symptoms and can indicate psychological concerns (2, 5). Engaging in secretive eating is also commonly associated with poor body image, and can further worsen these concerns and an individual’s mental health. 

In binge eating episodes, this disordered way of eating completely ignores an individual’s hunger and fullness cues, limiting a person’s ability to listen to and respond to their body’s needs appropriately.

 

Why do I eat in secret?

There are many factors that can influence a person’s secretive eating behaviour. It is often driven by psychological factors such as stress, shame or wanting a sense of control. It can also stem from an early childhood development.

 

Body Image Concerns

In a world that is so dominated by diet culture and weight loss trends, it is no shock that poor body image is on the rise. The urge to hide what you’re eating is very commonly associated with feeling judged for your eating choices.

Poor body image can lead to disordered eating behaviours or the binge and restrict dieting cycle. Secret eating is just one of the methods that can be used in this dangerous repetitive cycle.

 

Girl looking in the mirror frowning unhappy due to poor body image

 

Control

As humans, we desire to have autonomy over our actions and to rebel against restrictive rules placed on us from ourselves or our environment. Secret eating can be used to reclaim a sense of control or power over these rules.

Eating by yourself is one way to gain control without perceived judgement, and perhaps manage difficult emotions.

This is why secret eating is very common in children and adolescents. In a stage of their life, where so much is beyond their control, their eating habits are one thing they may try to control.

 

Dieting

Secret eating is usually catalysed from restrictive diets. Feelings of guilt and shame feed into the binge and restrict cycle which can manifest in behaviours such as secret eating.

For example, if people know you are on a diet, you are more inclined to avoid eating certain foods in front of them, to avoid the judgement. Instead you are more likely to eat these foods when no one is around.

Having a dieting mentality does not allow you full food freedom to enjoy the foods you want when you want.

 

 

Negative emotions

It’s not uncommon for secret eating to be fuelled by negative emotions such as guilt or shame. These feelings can stem from poor body image or an unhealthy relationship with food.

Research shows an association between secretive eating and symptoms of depression. For some, it is a compensatory behaviour to mask such symptoms or emotions.

Secret eating can also be a form of emotional eating (1). This is when someone uses food and eating to deal with their emotions instead of healthier coping strategies

 

BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

Fear of judgement

One of the main reasons someone might choose to eat in hiding, is to avoid judgement from others. The idea of people seeing what you are eating and how much you are eating is a common trigger for secretive eating.

So to avoid this judgement, you may choose to eat in another room, stay up late and eat while everyone is asleep, or to hide the wrappers of foods you have eaten.

The good news is, we have some advice on how you can move away from secret eating and reach food freedom.

 

How can I stop secret eating?

Here are some tips to try in your journey away from secret eating.

 

Identify the root cause

Secret eating is often a symptom of a larger issue, which is why it is so important to identify the root cause of the behaviour. Treating the behaviour without treating the cause is not as effective and can set you up for relapse.

 

There are a number of potential causes of secretive eating, including:

  • An eating disorder
  • Depression
  • Poor body image
  • Binge and restrict diet cycle

 

It’s important to take the time to identify trends and the emotions you are feeling in the lead up to a secret eating episode. This can help you find the root cause and move forward in your journey of healing.

 

Avoid restrictive dieting

A lot of feelings of shame and guilt around food can stem from restrictive food rules and the belief that food is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This mindset can lead to disordered eating habits like bingeing and secret eating.

Freeing yourself from the vicious binge and restrict cycle allows you to appreciate the value of all foods. This mentality can help eliminate the urge to hide eating foods that are considered ‘bad’ or ‘off limits’.

 

 

Reach out for support

Healing your relationship with food can be a long and winding journey. But you don’t have to do it alone.

Seeking professional support and treatment from a dietitian or psychologist can be extremely helpful in rebuilding your relationship with food.

The team at Imbodi Health are qualified and expeirienced in repairing disordered eating habits and beliefs.

 

Explore alternative coping mechanisms

Secret eating is often a coping strategy to deal with unwanted feelings and thoughts. 


Exploring other coping mechanisms can help you work through a range of different emotions in a healthier way.

 

BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS

  • Exercise
  • Relaxation techniques; such as meditation or deep breathing
  • Engaging in new hobbies; such as gardening or crafts
  • Seeking professional help; including from a psychologist and/or dietitian 
  • Journalling
  • Reframing negative thoughts; steering away from restrictive thoughts

 

girl journalling with a coffee and a candle as a form of self-care

 

Practice self-care and self-compassion

The very first step in overcoming secret eating is practicing compassion for yourself. Eating is a normal bodily function that doesn’t need to be influenced by feelings of shame or restriction. 

It’s also not something to be ashamed of, and neither is choosing to recover from secret eating. 

In order to build a healthier relationship with food, it’s important to be kinder to yourself and let go of the guilt you hold around food.

This can be challenging, but there are ways to find balance with food and respect the body that you’re in. Allowing yourself to enjoy all foods in moderation will help overcome the urge to binge and eat in hiding. 

 

Summary

Secret eating is a complex behaviour that can be indicative of greater concerns, including eating disorders. Although every episode may not be a binge, it is very commonly associated with binge eating disorder, and puts you at greater risk of developing an eating disorder.

It can start as a child hiding food in their bedroom, or an adult staying up to 2am to eat secret foods. There is no age limit on who secret eating affects.

Whilst secret eating is something you do alone, recovering and rebuilding your relationship with food isn’t something you have to do alone. With the right support network and healthy coping strategies, you can identify the root cause and move towards food freedom and intuitive eating.

Recovering from secret eating can be challenging but so rewarding, as well as beneficial for your overall health.

 

If you would like support in overcoming secret eating and ditching restrictive diets, the team of dietitians at Imbodi Health are here to help you. Book in a free 15 minute discovery call to see if they are the right fit for you.

 

BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

Written by: Student dietitian Claudia Torrisi

Review by: Imbodi Health dietitian Jade Wrigley

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