Originally written in June 2015. Updated May 2020
I wrote this blog a while ago, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe it is more relevant than ever. Sadly, rather than embrace an all foods fit mentality in this time of uncertainty, diet culture instead is doubling down on BS about food, immunity and even weight gain during quarantine/isolation.
I consulted with a client the other day who wanted to admit something embarrassing. The admission started out like so many others that I’ve heard: “I’ve never told anyone this but… when everyone is in bed, sometimes I sneak into the kitchen and eat foods I am not supposed to. I feel out of control, like I cannot stop myself, eat more than I want to and end up feeling panicked and guilty. What is WRONG with me?!”.
While I am honoured that my clients feel comfortable enough to share these intimate details, I am sad that they feel so embarrassed. I am also angry that, despite the awful consequences of dieting (such as this one), they are still the #1 go-to for people who want to lose weight and be healthier. I believe strongly that eating in secret should not cause us to feel shame because it is a natural response to dieting, not eating enough and/or not eating the foods we love. Hiding to eat, eating past fullness, eating when not hungry, feeling you cannot stop eating- these all happen more often than you think– it is just not something many people talk about.
We are incorrectly taught that eating “too much” (either in general or of certain foods) as well as wanting delicious foods is wrong and something to feel ashamed about. It is human nature to want enough food to feel physically and mentally satisfied as well as the need for food to be yummy. It turns out that dieting or following food rules leads humans towards these uncomfortable actions.
Imagine that! the very thing that is supposed to “stop you” from overeating is the very thing that pushes you to eat in secret.
Let us explore a scenario that could lead you or someone you know to be ashamed of eating and thus eat in secret:
“Imagine that you decide to follow a popular diet to lose weight. The diet forbids you to eat your favourite foods and many foods your family typically eats. So, instead of eating your favourite meal you prepared for your family, you are choking down your “special” meal of broiled fish and steamed veggies. Feeling deprived & a little hungry but proud of yourself for eating your weight loss meal, you start to clean up. You are left alone in the kitchen and as you put away the pasta, you hear it calling your name. The internal struggle begins:
Devil: I’ve been good all day and I haven’t eaten any forbidden foods
Angel: I am not allowed to eat this
Devil: I really want some, just a little bite!
Angel: You’ll gain weight if you eat it and gaining weight is awful
Devil: I’m never going to be healthy, so why bother trying!
Angel: You know that 1 bite turns into 20- you can never control yourself!
After taking a few manic bites of pasta, you figure, “what the heck! I’ve already ruined my perfect diet day, I might as well go nuts”. So, standing at the counter, you finish off the pot of pasta. How could this have happened?! One minute you were being good, and the next you are feeling stuffed.“
There are a few things that may have pushed you in the direction of eating past fullness:
1. Feeling deprived & being deprived: it is natural for humans to “want what we can’t have” and there is no better example of this than with dieting and food. When we deprive ourselves of our favourite foods or even just normal foods, we often are compelled to eat a large amount of them when they are available. Also, cravings of these off-limit foods increase when we forbid them.
2. Hunger, both physical and mental: anyone can follow a crazy diet for a little while but over time it becomes harder. If the diet leaves us feeling hungry, then it is a no brainer that we will want to eat more (perhaps when no one is looking and therefore no one can judge us). The mental “hunger” for delicious foods and the need to have pleasure when eating is something that is often overlooked. If every meal is a disappointment, it is not uncommon to eventually go looking for good tasting food. What usually tastes good? forbidden foods! Foods that are not allowed are often perceived as tasting better than if they are eaten without guilt. Remove the guilt and often you remove the sacred status the food holds.
3. Comments from the peanut gallery. If the people around us are trying to “help” by saying negative comments about our food choices, our instinct is usually to rebel. Hearing things like “you’ll never lose weight eating like that!” or “Are you sure you need to eat that?” is embarrassing and angering. A lot of people are compelled to rebel against these attitudes by eating the food they were told not to. This can happen when alone in the kitchen late at night or in your car before you go into the house.
The key is to understand WHY you are being encouraged to eat. You are not a failure or broken if you eat in secret, eat past fullness or feel you can’t stop eating. Something is influencing you to do these things and finding out what (dieting, not eating enough, food rules, etc) is super helpful.
I want to be clear with the message that it is ok to eat something because you are stressed or need comfort. Eating because something tastes/looks good & eating because it will help us feel better is normal & natural. When we do these things often, humans tend to feel uncomfortable and start to feel like food is ruling their life. The big question is, are you less stressed and comforted by the food? The answer could be “sometimes yes, sometimes no”. If you check in with your body and mind and find that food is not lifting you up, the key is to find a solution that does lift you up. Try not to waste any time feeling upset or guilt for eating when not hungry (it’s actually not great for our health to do that) and instead put your energy into figuring out what you actually need (food won’t always comfort us- so what is your backup plan?).
It is not always about what you eat, it is about understanding why you are eating. Ideally, asking this question in a neutral, non-judgmental way will help to shed light on the issue. If you would like help with exploring your food habits, consider consulting with a dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating.