Secret eating: how to stop and let go of your shame

Are you so ashamed of your eating habits that you hide them from others – and even yourself? The first step to changing a damaging relationship with food is to let go of your shame. Here’s how to stop secret eating and build a healthier relationship with the food that fuels you…

Are you a secret eater? Do you hide your eating from others for fear of being judged? Do you even hide some of your eating from yourself? Many people who are trying to reach a healthier weight live a double life food-wise. They may be anxious to eat healthily in front of others so no one can reproach them, but then overindulge as soon as no one’s looking.

Of course, we all prefer to eat privately, even secretly sometimes. Maybe it’s just too much of a bore to conform to the usual social rules. So much easier to eat baked beans straight from the tin! The key to whether your secret eating is a problem is simple. How would you feel if someone whose opinion you care about found you at it? If you’d simply feel some social embarrassment, then join the club! We’re all human – and anyway, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in the occasional sweet treat or junk food. But if you’d feel deep shame and guilt, that’s different, and it might be time to reassess your relationship with food.

Eating in a trance

Is some of your eating secret even from yourself? Of course, if you’re not actively trying to reach a healthier weight, there’s no particular reason to remember everything that passes your lips. But if you’re trying to create healthier eating habits, a food diary can be eye-opening, to help you keep track of everything you’re putting into your body.

Studies show that people who are overweight often simply don’t remember much of what they eat. Many people say – and believe – that they eat a healthy amount when it’s really a whole lot more. It’s not that just that anyone can genuinely forget those quick snacks. If you have emotional conflicts and stresses about weight loss, it’s extra hard to recall every mouthful. In sheer self-protection, your mind may blur the truth, so you eat in a sort of trance.

FYI: there is nothing wrong with indulging in the occasional pizza or glass of wine! However, if you feel a sense of deep shame around your eating habits, it might be time to build a healthier relationship with food.

How to stop the vicious circle of secret eating

Secret eating is a vicious circle. It leaves you feeling different and isolated. Each time you eat, you may be left feeling a deep sense of shame. Other people, you feel, can be open and upfront: they’re not concealing some of their eating as though it were a dirty habit. They have nothing to be embarrassed about. Whereas you may find yourself living with the dread of being found out, full of excuses to give others – and yourself. If you find yourself with any of these feelings, it’s time to take a closer look at your relationship with food.

The reason people develop secret eating habits is often simply fear – usually fear of being judged by others or themselves. There’s guilt and, colouring everything, shame. And the trouble with feeling ashamed, research shows, is that it undermines your ability to regulate yourself. It makes it harder, not easier, to control the behaviour you’re ashamed of.

How to stop feeling shameful for secret eating:

Letting go of shame, learning how to stop secret eating and finally getting back in charge of your eating habits starts with facing your deep feelings. Bringing shame and guilt into awareness is painful, but the pain is something people with eating issues may have been burdened with for years. You can be so used to it, you hardly even notice it – it’s just the way the inside of your head feels.

Well, take a quiet moment to get in touch with your emotions about eating and food. Drift back to episodes when you’ve felt intensely ashamed or guilty or inadequate or humiliated. See these experiences calmly and distantly – imagine they happened to someone else, someone you like but aren’t close to. Or pretend you’re watching a film or TV drama.

Be kind to yourself

Your mind may be churning with harsh, judgemental self-criticism. These unpleasant emotions and cruel self-talk are a natural way of trying to deal with weight issues. When you’ve built up such a critical perception of your eating habits, it might feel strange and wrong NOT to judge yourself. But if you’re a secret eater, none of this mental pain has worked! It hasn’t brought eating into balance in your life. It’s just added an extra layer of stress and suffering, which has forced you into more secrecy in sheer self-defence.

The way forward when learning how to stop secret eating is to treat yourself with kindness, compassion and understanding. If a friend had the same issues, you wouldn’t tear her to shreds, would you? You’d realise that her eating habits were only a small part of her. So treat yourself the same way! Accept that you’re human, with strengths and vulnerabilities.

how to stop secret eating

There is no such thing as ‘bad’ food – so long as you eat things in moderation. Labeling foods as ‘naughty’ can cause you to build a negative relationship with your eating habits.

Stop labeling food as ‘bad’ to overcome secret eating

Don’t talk about food in moral terms. It seems natural – even amusing – to describe food as sinful, bad or forbidden. That gooey desert is ‘naughty’. Think! What are you telling yourself when you eat this immoral food? What sort of person does that make you? You may think it’s a joke – everybody talks about chocolate and crisps like that – but the deep brain has no sense of humour.

Going public can be the antidote to secret shame. But confessing to your nearest or dearest or your colleagues and friends that you struggle with bingeing or secret eating may not be helpful, especially if you think this may risk opening yourself up to condemnation and criticism. You’re doing enough of that already.

Instead, a weight-management club, such as Rosemary Conley Online, or support group or even a friend who is also trying to manage their weight can be a better option. They will have struggled with the same issues and you will realise that you are just one person among others, not different and not worse. You’ll understand them, admire and respect their determination and persistence, and treat their vulnerabilities with compassion. This is the way you should see yourself and treat yourself. This is the way forward.

Related: 6 reasons why you’re not losing weight when exercising

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