Janie stood at the refrigerator in the dark, eating ice-cream with her fingers. Her boyfriend, in the next room, wouldn’t have cared if she ate it in front of him. Janie was quite slim and had always been. But Janie would never under any circumstances eat ice-cream or sugary treats in front of anyone. Janie was a secret eater.
Lana was always such a great hostess at dinner parties and served heaping platters of food to her guests. She’d refuse to let anyone help clean up afterward, insisting they’d get in the way. But no one guessed her ulterior motive. Very few scraps and leftovers went into the garbage — Lana ate her second meal of the night off of other people’s dirty plates, with only the cat as a witness.
Brigitte hid a stash of goodies in her desk at work to munch on until noon. After a quick lunch alone at the food court, she’d bring back an “official” meal to eat in front of colleagues, and more goodies for the afternoon stint at her desk. If she fancied anything fattening, she’d scarf it down in the lady’s room, the only place she could hide. Brigitte was overweight. She could never let anyone see her consume a calorie-laden item, lest they think she got that way from eating. But no one ever saw Brigitte eat anything but normal-sized portions of what she considered “healthy” food.
These are just a few examples of secret eating, one of the precursors to and components of binge eating disorder (BED), which is more common than anorexia and bulimia put together. While statistics tell us between 3% and 5% of the population has BED¹, many more go undiagnosed, in part, because doctors are either uninformed or misinformed about it. For example, doctors rarely ask about eating behavior, especially if the person is a normal weight. And even if a doctor does ask, he or she may not hear the truth (because the whole point of secret eating is that nobody knows).
As a psychotherapist who has specialized in disordered eating for almost ten years, coming out of the closet about secret eating goes a long way to reducing the discomfort around it. It also increases the possibility of healing. And as someone who has been in the recovery process from BED and food addiction for over three decades,
I can testify to the freedom I felt when I was able to identify and let go of my secret eating habits.
Guilt, shame, and confusion attached to secret eating
People have many reasons for secret eating, but guilt, shame and confusion top the list. Guilt comes from wanting food we don’t think we should want or have. It also stems from a range of real or imagined mistakes. Shame comes from feeling less than perfect, from not looking the way we want, and from unknown and therefore unmet needs, wants and desires. And confusion reigns supreme when we eat secretly even though we believe we shouldn’t — we are mystified as to why we keep doing it, and why we can’t seem to stop.
Secret eating can start in childhood or at any time throughout the lifespan. It can become a habit very quickly.
Many secret eaters are often in denial about how much they consume and easily lose perspective. They may over- or underestimate amounts, and either let themselves off the hook (“it wasn’t so bad”) or punish themselves without mercy (“now you’ve ruined everything!”). If a lot of junk food was part of the mix, and high in sugar, fat or salt — foods which are specifically designed to make us want more, according to authors Michael Moss² and David Kessler³ – the resulting brain fog can make recall even more difficult.
Numberless tracking as a tool
That’s why numberless tracking can be a powerful tool. I ask willing clients to write down everything they eat in a little notebook or on a piece of paper – for their eyes only. Just the food consumed. I ask them not to use apps for this, since most come with automatic counters (of calories, carbs, or whatever), and tend to fuel the diet mentality — the math obsession with weight and balancing calories-in and calories theoretically burned off by exercise. Besides, brain research tells us that the act of handwriting helps our brains register the message more clearly than tapping out a text into a cellphone.
And registering the message about secret eating can help empower us to stop.
Writing down what we eat can bring at least 3 main benefits:
The writing process helps you shift out of denial into self-honesty. In my own recovery, writing after a binge often surprised me — sometimes I’d eaten less than I’d imagined, and sometimes much more. My clients experience similar discoveries.
Eventually, writing down what you eat helps you to stop judging what you did, and accept it more. This was a very important part of my own healing process, and my clients often tell me the same.
Over time, you begin to see patterns, and to understand that the secret eating doesn’t usually happen out of the blue – that something else is going on. Perhaps an uncomfortable emotion comes to your awareness, or your self-criticism, or any one of a host of other possibilities.
Numberless tracking can be an effective tool. If you’re a secret eater, why not give it a shot? All you’ve got to lose is your guilt, shame, and confusion!
¹Hudson, J.I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H.G. Jr., & Kessler, R.C. The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry. 2007; 61:348-358.
² Moss, Michael. Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Signal, 2014).
³Kessler, David A. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite (McClelland & Stewart, 2010).