When I first start talking to a new client, she often tells me sheepishly about some of her most embarrassing food habits. It’s my job to put her at ease, making it okay for her to openly share these perceived shameful behaviors. I tell her that I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to overeat in secret, and so do all of the other women who come to me. A lot of times, my client will start crying on this initial call, saying things like, “Wow, I thought I was the only one. It’s so nice to hear that it’s not just me.”
Way more women have these secret food behaviors than you probably realize. These behaviors are a direct result of having a diet mentality (since it teaches you that sticking to your diet makes you "good" and eating things not on it makes you "bad"). Because so many women diet, it makes sense that many of them also find themselves eating in secret.
Here's a sampling of what they told me:
"I don't tell anyone, but when I make chocolate chip cookies, I like to eat the batter. Since the batter is not a 'cookie' yet, I can’t tell how many I’ve had, so it feels like it doesn’t count. In actuality, it’s probably eight raw cookies. Then I need to try one fresh out of the oven and also another once it's cooled to make sure that they are good! By then end, I’ve probably eaten about 10 cookies—but only count them as two."
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"When we have a family over for dinner, I do a lot of cooking and menu planning. When they arrive, we have a lovely meal together with laughter and food and conversation. But when they leave, I dig into the leftover dessert as though everybody at the party had told me not to touch it and I just can't hold back any longer. Why? Still figuring that out."
"Even though I love school and learning, grad school stresses me out constantly. I remember sitting in class from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and always fantasizing about what foods I could indulge in when I got home. On occasion, I wouldn't be able to find anything to satisfy my cravings, so I would have to get creative. I would eat bags of chocolate chips or spoonfuls of Cool Whip. Occasionally, I'd be so secretive about my odd food choices that I would hide out in the bathroom or my bedroom and feast on these sugary foods late at night."
"I used to always look forward to babysitting my nieces and nephews because I knew I could raid my sister’s refrigerator and cupboards. She keeps all the good 'junk' food that I never allowed myself to buy or eat, including ice cream, granola, chocolate, cereal, etc. I couldn’t wait until I would see her car backing out of the driveway so I could start eating. I would hide the wrappers in my purse so there was no evidence in the trashcan. And if I ate too much of one item, like leftover birthday cake, I would tell my sister that I allowed the kids to have an extra snack. Looking back, I feel really horrible because I spent more time eating than I did playing with the kids."
"Sometimes, when someone would buy a communal bag of candy at work, I'd eat the entire thing and then sneak out and buy a new one so no one would know it was me."
"I eat secretly on the way home from work in my car. I feel ashamed, like I don't want my husband to know that I'm eating cookies or candy bars because it'll make me gain weight—even though he's never said a word about my weight and proposed to me when I was at my heaviest. I throw the trash away in an outside garbage can or before I get home so no one knows."
Women are ashamed of these behaviors and beat themselves up about them—and I can empathize because I used to do say the same things to myself when I overate: What’s wrong with me? I'm such a pig. I'm disgusting. I'll never get out of this horrible cycle.
The issue is that through years or even decades of dieting, you can come to think of food in a really unhealthy and twisted way. Your mentality towards food is what’s causing this behavior.
So what's the answer? Ditch the diet think. The second you start to label foods as “good” and “bad," you give food the power to wreak havoc on your emotions. Foods like cookies, ice cream, and bread become things you aren’t "supposed" to have.
The thing is, though, that you're only human—and wanting to take something from your coworker's candy bowl on a Tuesday afternoon doesn't make you "bad"—it just makes you normal. So why make yourself miserable because you had this perfectly understandable urge and you gave into it?
Lead a healthy lifestyle, yes—but you can (and I strongly believe should) do that without living by arbitrary rules someone else has established for you.
What if you still engage in your secret eating habit? As you’re going through the process of changing your relationship with food, you will have moments when this happens. That’s okay! Instead of beating yourself up about it, take some time to think through why you're being so hard on yourself. What food are you still labeling as off-limits and therefore are placing on a pedestal? How can you reframe your thinking to take some of that pressure off of yourself so you can set yourself up for better habits—and less mental torment—in the future?
Above all else, remember: There is nothing wrong with you. Food can only make you feel badly about yourself if you give it the power to.
Jamie Mendell is a holistic health coach who specializes in helping women lose weight without dieting. To find out more about her philosophy, check out her website.