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1 In 4 women admit to secret eating to avoid guilt and shame

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

This harmless eating habit can actually be a huge red flag

Have you ever virtuously skipped the cake at the office party to later eat dry cookies hidden in your car? Have you ever buried the wrappers of the mini candy bars you ate from your kids' Halloween bags under other trash so no one would see them? Have you ever hidden food in your purse to later eat it in your closet, bedroom or even bathroom? If so, you're in good company as a recent survey found that one in four women cop to being a "secret eater."

A new poll examined data from 2000 British women and found that eating certain foods in secret was the most common behavior, with more than 60 percent of women admitting they hide while eating foods they think they shouldn't be eating. And really, who hasn't occasionally bought a bar of chocolate with the express intent of enjoying it solo. There's something almost hedonistic about not only indulging in a treat but eating it however you want, without the pressure of prying eyes.

And as long as you're enjoying the treat and it's an occasional splurge, the experts say it's likely not a problem. The issue, however, with most secret eaters is that we (and yes I include myself in this group) aren't eating out of selfish joy but rather fear of being judged — a fear that is sadly justified in our society which has practically made a sport out of watching women eat and criticizing them for it.

I once had a waitress friend group-text a picture she'd taken subversively of a table of overweight patrons gorging on appetizers. Other friends laughed and rolled their eyes but my face burned in embarrassment for these people, unaware that their happy hour bliss had turned them into a punchline for strangers. As someone who is acutely aware of when other people are watching me eat, I suppose I should just be grateful she hadn't posted the picture on the internet.

So it's understandable to me why people might eat alone out of shame or guilt. But it's not just eating alone that's the problem. The poll also found that one in six women have stashes of treats hidden around their house, one in three bury the evidence of eaten food under other trash and one in 10 will resort to eating treats in the bathroom if nowhere else private is available. It probably goes without saying that eating on the toilet is a good indication you're not truly enjoying your food. And it's not like anyone's hiding to eat celery sticks.

The saddest stat is that the vast majority of women are hiding their eating from their husbands, boyfriends or significant others — the people who are supposed to love us the most and love us regardless of whether or not we can eat an entire 1-pound bag of M&M's in a sitting. Women reported eating in secret most often when they felt sad or stressed out, which means that they are running to the embrace of Little Debbie instead of their lover.

"This absolutely confirms that, for many, eating has nothing to do with food, it's all about what's going on in the mind," says Denise Welch, of LighterLife, the company who sponsored the poll. "Gorging on food you're not supposed to be eating, whether that's because you're dieting, or you don't want to set a bad example to your children does give you a buzz and acts as an instant pick-me-up. But it's short lived, and often followed by guilt."

The experts added that habitual shame-eating in secret can create a very unhealthy relationship with food where instead of seeing it as nourishment we see it as the enemy, setting us up for other disordered eating behaviors like binge eating and purging.

So is secret eating a harmless pastime most women do to relax or is it a sign of darker problems? "If it's a daily occurrence and you are lying to those closest to you about your eating habits then it may be a sign that you need to address it," Says Welch.

Do you ever eat in secret?

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