Why you feel you need to hide your eating
As the name suggests, secret eating is a disordered eating behaviour that involves eating at times, in locations or in ways where you won’t be seen, with the intention of hiding what or how much you’re eating from other people. Secret eating is more common than you might think; a survey of 2000 women found that 6 in 10 engaged in secret eating and a quarter hid the evidence.1
As research around secret eating (particularly in adults) is still in its early days, much of what we know comes from the reports of personal experiences of individuals and the professional experiences of clinicians.
In this article, we’ll explore the link between secret eating and eating disorders, the reason behind secret eating and some tips to help you find freedom in your eating.
Is secret eating an eating disorder?
Secret eating in and of itself is not currently a diagnosable eating disorder, although there is a definitive link between the two.
One large study found that teens who eat secretively are more likely to engage in restriction and purging than those who don’t.2 Another study among adults found that the more frequently secret eating occurred, the greater the individuals concerns were around food, weight and shape.3
Although the research is limited, many researchers believe secret eating may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.2
Many people have a strong association between secret eating and binge eating disorder; however, secret eating is both related to and distinct from binge eating. While binge eating often (but not always) involves elements of secrecy, secret eating does not necessarily include the large volumes of food or perceived loss of control that characterise binge eating.
One study of adults with binge eating disorder found that around half engaged in secret eating outside of their binge eating episodes, demonstrating that these behaviours are separate phenomenon.3 This being said, secret eating is thought to have a similar effect as restriction in that it increases binge episodes by triggering feelings of deprivation and putting foods on a pedestal as the “forbidden fruit”.
Why am I secret eating and how do I stop?
There are a wide range of reasons why people engage in secret eating. Some, all or none of the following reasons might feel relatable to you!
ONE: To reclaim a sense of control
The participants of a small study published in 2012 described their secret eating as a form of rebellion.4 Specifically, they identified their behaviour as a way to reclaim a sense of power that they felt they had lost, particularly from their parents and partners. An attempt to regain control is a common theme in people with disordered eating behaviours; however, over time, we typically see the opposite occur as the behaviour takes control of the individual. Finding new ways to experience a sense of calm and empowerment can be a helpful way to reduce secret eating.
TWO: To escape uncomfortable emotions
The 2012 study mentioned above also found that many of the participants described their secret eating to have begun as an outlet for their emotional distress. 4 This might occur in the form of emotional or comfort eating, or even as a way to avoid the guilt, shame and feelings of imperfection that can come with eating foods that you feel is forbidden.
In this situation, try offering yourself as much compassion as possible. Remember that you are worthy of kindness and that you are not alone in your struggles. Read more about introducing more self-compassion into your life.
THREE: To seek approval
Diet culture teaches us that there is a distinct lines between foods that are “good” and foods that are “bad”, and to be praise-worthy you must only eat the former. This social construct is incredibly toxic and the internalisation of these beliefs elicits feelings of guilt and shame for engaging in a normal human behaviour – the enjoyment of food!
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that research has found that many people who eat in secret do so to avoid criticism and judgement from others. 4 This fear of judgement not only increases the likelihood of secret eating, but also self-isolation and a decrease in support-seeking.
For one-on-one support in healing your relationship with food, reach out to us at email@example.com to find out more about how we can work with you to find food freedom.
Karli Battaglia, APD
EHL Team x
- Abrahams A. Controlled eating by day, binging by night: the secret chaos of my food disorder [Internet]. Red Online. 2017 [cited 20 October 2021]. Available from: https://www.redonline.co.uk/health-self/a530750/secret-eating-food-disorder/
- Kass A, Wilfley D, Eddy K, Boutelle K, Zucker N, Peterson C et al. Secretive eating among youth with overweight or obesity. Appetite. 2017;114:275-281.
- Lydecker J, Grilo C. I didn’t want them to see: Secretive eating among adults with binge-eating disorder. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2019;52(2):153-158.
- Hernandez-Hons A, Woolley S. Women’s Experiences with Emotional Eating and Related Attachment and Sociocultural Processes. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 2011;38(4):589-603.