“Sneak Eating:” How to Compassionately Overcome Patterns of Hiding Food and Eating in Secret

How to Overcome the Desire to Hide Food & Eat in Secret: Turning to the leading experts in shame and self-compassion: Brene Brown & Kristin Neff

Sneak eating, hiding food and eating in secret are behaviors that can describe an eating disorder — yet they can also describe the silent struggles of someone, with or without an eating disorder, striving to cope with powerful and difficult emotions, such as depression or chronic stress. Not all those who eat in secret have an eating disorder, though studies suggest that patterns of eating in secret can increase the chances of developing one.

In a society that holds and unforgiving mirror to our body image, anyone can find themselves retreating into privacy to eat, which can spiral into habitual sneak eating patterns. Personally, I used to eat in secret back when I struggled with binge eating, and no diet ever helped me stop. In fact, it was the pursuit of mental health and personal development where I finally found the answers, and I’m about to share all the insights I’ve gained.

Through both my personal experience and insight from other experts, we will walk the journey out of sneak eating tendencies together. In particular, I will draw upon insight from Brené Brown, a renowned “shame researcher,” and Kristen Neff, a distinguished psychologist and “self-compassion researcher” to address the root causes of eating in secret.

If you have an eating disorder or suspect that you or a loved one needs help, the National Eating Disorders Association has plenty of resources to find the help you need.

What Is Sneak Eating?

“Sneak eating” refers to consuming food secretly, usually when you’re alone. It is characterized by a deliberate attempt to eat food without others’ knowledge, usually driven by feelings of shame, guilt, or fear of judgment regarding your food choices or amount of food consumed.

People that struggle with sneak eating may go to great lengths to ensure their behavior remains undetected, such as hiding food and eating it when no one is looking. When measures are taken even further, it can involve eating late at night when others are asleep, waiting for others to leave the house to eat in secret, and hiding food wrappers or burying food wrappers deep in the trash to avoid being discovered.

Sneak Eating and Eating in Secret: It’s Not Just You

I vividly remember a time when I struggled with sneak eating during my own journey with disordered eating. I would lock myself in my room, trying to distance myself from tempting junk food only to find myself in the pantry at midnight, devouring savory cheddar rice cakes. Though it was a low-calorie “diet food,” I was binge eating them two bags at a time.

The worst feeling was when someone that I lived with would mention that they heard me up late at night. What was I doing? I felt deeply ashamed and “caught” in my pattern of eating when no one was looking.

I also knew someone that would “sneak eat” junk food while her boyfriend was gone and then, in an attempt to make sure he never found out, would bury the trash in the dumpster outside. It wasn’t that her boyfriend was controlling or judgmental, but she herself was judgmental of eating anything but “clean.”

Anyone that struggles with sneak eating understands the desire to go far out of your way to hide your eating habits. The feeling of shame that motivates sneak eating runs deep.

Many years later, as someone that now coaches individuals that are recovering from compulsive eating, I know that I am not alone. In fact, one study found that 54% of people seeking treatment for binge-eating disorder reported that they struggle with sneak eating separate from binge episodes. If I was in that study, I would be part of that majority.

Understanding the Roots of Shame in Sneak Eating

Because sneak eating stems from patterns of shame, I could not write this article without mentioning Brené Brown, a renowned shame researcher, lecturer, and TedTalk extraordinaire.

In case you haven’t seen her TedTalk about shame and vulnerability, it is one of the most-watched TedTalks of all time, and it is sure to inspire you:

Brené describes shame as an intensely painful feeling of believing that we are not enough and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. In this way, shame leads to feelings of inadequacy and isolation. Brown suggests that shame thrives in secrecy, silence, and judgment — the very elements that typically characterize sneak eating.

She further advocates for shame resilience, a skill that helps us recognize and navigate shame. Brené’s research points out that empathy is the antidote to shame, and it’s through shared experiences and vulnerability that we can build connections and foster empathy. Shame – including sneak eating – can’t survive being spoken and being met with empathy.

What Else Causes Sneak Eating and Eating in Secret?

We will talk more about Brené Brown’s work and shame resilience soon, but first, I want to finish painting the full picture of why we eat in secret, hide food, and start sneak eating to begin with. What pushes us towards behavior that causes us to hide our eating to begin with?

1. Seeking Control and Autonomy

Desiring a degree of control and autonomy in life is completely normal and can, in fact, be a positive and healthy aspect of one’s psyche. This desire is closely linked to our sense of self-determination and self-efficacy – the belief in our capacity to influence and shape our own lives. 

However, when the need for control and autonomy becomes skewed or overly rigid, it can contribute to behaviors like sneak eating, hiding food and eating in secret. This usually happens when a person feels their food choices might be criticized or judged, or when they fear losing control over their eating habits. Under such circumstances, eating secretly allows them to maintain their self-imposed rules and autonomy without attracting external scrutiny.

Yet, it’s crucial to distinguish between a healthy desire for control and an obsessive need for it. A balanced sense of control contributes to a person’s self-efficacy and emotional stability. But when the need for control and autonomy is expressed through rigid food rules and secret eating, it can become a source of psychological stress rather than comfort.

2. Perfectionism and Pressure to Perform

photo of a perfectionist-looking woman doing yoga, who may or may not struggle with sneak eating, looks can be deceiving

Sneak eating can affect anyone, even "thin people" that others may assume have no problems with food.

The desire for perfection and judgement towards oneself can also contribute to sneak eating behaviors. Individuals who hold themselves to impossibly high standards may view any deviation from self-imposed rules as personal failures. Sneak eating can become a way to hide these perceived failures and maintain a façade of control, reinforcing the cycle of secrecy and self-criticism.

For example, people that grew up in households where achievements were over-celebrated or even pushed upon by parents can lead to an intense pressure to perform. Furthermore, diet culture and even gym culture can both over-celebrate individuals that go to extreme lengths to achieve “the perfect body,” and gym goers may feel inadequate when working out alongside those individuals. 

Gymtimidation” can cause individuals to exercise exhaustively in front of their peers, but then sneak eat to reclaim a sense of control or to self-soothe from the heightened pressure to perform.

3. Emotional Coping Mechanism

Many of us are familiar with the idea of “comfort eating,” where we consume food not for physical hunger but for emotional comfort. Sneak eating is similar in that it can act as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional distress such as depression, loneliness, or anxiety. 

For example, a college student that recently went through a break up and also deals with social anxiety may struggle to reach out for support. Without adequate emotional coping mechanisms, they may begin to start hiding food in their dorm room, stashing it under their bed, and eating it in secret when their roommate is gone. These sneak eating behaviors could be an attempt to regain a sense of control or numb negative feelings without the fear of being judged.

4. Low Self-Esteem and Body Dissatisfaction

Negative body image and low self-esteem can also lead individuals to engage in sneak eating as a coping mechanism. When a person experiences body insecurity or feelings of being fat, whether their body mass is actually above a healthy threshold or not, it can trigger a need to seek temporary relief or escape.

The act of indulging in food in secrecy, although it may exacerbate the problem of body dissatisfaction, can temporarily provide the person with a sense of control and helps them avoid external judgment. When someone is particularly sensitive to other people commenting on their weight, eating in secret can be a coping mechanism.

5. Feeling Guilty for Eating “Bad Foods”

assortment of different junk foods like burgers and chips, which are often the target of sneak eating and eating in secret

Whether you binge on low-calorie or high-calorie foods, sneak eating is characterized by doing it in secret.

Fear of certain foods, often due to the fear of weight gain or negative health consequences, can contribute to sneak eating behaviors. For example, if someone perceives carbohydrates as unhealthy, forbidden, or associated with guilt — yet they become overwhelmed with the desire to eat them anyway — they may resort to sneak eating to avoid being perceived as “weak” or without willpower.

It is important to acknowledge that the way we are afraid of being judged by others is often a reflection of how we are judging ourselves. Not all who eat carbs are weak, for example, but if someone is afraid of that judgement, it is likely because they themselves hold the belief that eating carbohydrates or veering outside of an overly-strict diet signifies weakness.

6. The Restrict-Binge Cycle

Finally, the restrict-binge cycle can play a significant role in sneak eating patterns, especially when dieting is involved. When food is restricted, as commonly happens during a diet, the body’s natural survival mechanisms kick in as it perceives a threat to its energy resources. This leads to a cascade of hormonal changes that increase hunger signals and heighten cravings for high-calorie foods – which are often the foods that are restricted.

Psychologically, the strict rules and forbidden nature of certain foods can create a heightened desire and preoccupation with them. Sneak eating may become a way to temporarily escape or numb the uncomfortable emotions associated with the shame of breaking self-imposed food rules. However, it ultimately perpetuates the cycle of guilt, secrecy, and sneak eating behavior.

In the next section, we will explore the application of “Shame Resilience Theory,” as developed by the wonderful Brené Brown, to address the underlying shame associated with sneak eating and provide additional strategies for overcoming these patterns with self-compassion.

Using “Shame Resilience Theory” to Overcome Sneak Eating Patterns

According to Brené, shame thrives in silence and secrecy. The harder we try to hide our eating patterns, the more shame we are likely to feel. This is where Shame Resilience Theory can help.

By recognizing and acknowledging the shame that accompanies sneak eating, we can begin the journey toward building shame resilience. This involves cultivating the capacity to recognize shame triggers, moving through shame constructively, and developing stronger connections with others.

Owning your story is one of the most powerful ways to constructively move through shame, according to Brené. When we find the courage to wrap words around our shame by telling our story, we take back our power. The key is to tell our story to someone that we know will meet us with compassion.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ‑Brené Brown

Critical awareness is another important element in shame resilience. It involves challenging unrealistic expectations and societal pressures that contribute to feelings of shame. For example, individuals may explore their beliefs about food, body image, and perfectionism by questioning the origins and impacts of these beliefs and how they perpetuate patterns of sneak eating.

A great tool to help you explore any beliefs that fuel sneak eating is my bestselling workbook, Why We Do the Things We Do. It contains guided prompts that dig at common areas where we tend to get “stuck” around food, such as what we believe about thinness (which for many of us is akin to worthiness) and much more.

Connecting with others is another crucial aspect of shame resilience. It involves reaching out and sharing experiences of shame with trusted individuals who can offer empathy and understanding. By speaking about shame and being met with genuine empathy, individuals can experience a sense of validation and connection, reducing the power of shame.

Compassionate Strategies to Overcome Patterns of Eating in Secret

While shame resilience theory directly addresses the root cause of sneak eating, there are many other techniques that you can use to overcome behaviors of eating in secret.

Here are several other tips that can help you overcome sneak eating patterns:

  • Seek Professional Help: If you find yourself struggling with sneak eating, there are plenty of experts that can help such as healthcare professionals, therapists, eating psychology coaches, or registered dietitians. You do not have to figure it out on your own. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Furthermore, if you suspect that you or a loved one has an eating disorder, it’s important to seek help from someone specialized in eating disorders to get the right type of help.
  • Foster a Supportive Environment: Building a network of understanding and empathetic individuals who can offer support is essential. Surrounding yourself with loved ones, joining support groups, or connecting with online communities can create a safe space for sharing experiences and receiving encouragement.
  • Develop Mindful Eating Practices: For some people, it can help to practice mindful eating, which involves paying attention to your food when you eat (i.e. no eating while distracted), tuning into your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and cultivating non-judgmental awareness of your eating behaviors. Although I personally find that mindful eating is not helpful for compulsive eating in particular, it is still a strategy worth noting.
  • Work on Emotional Tolerance: If you struggle with sneak eating along with other types of compulsive eating, such as binge eating or overeating, it helps to generate awareness and tolerance for the uncomfortable emotions that drive the compulsion to overeat, hide food, or eat in secret. Tools like my Stop, Drop, & Feel method to stop binge eating are designed to help with this by addressing underlying emotions of compulsive eating.
  • Cultivate Self-Compassion: Embracing self-compassion means treating ourselves with kindness and understanding, especially during moments of difficulty or setbacks. It involves recognizing that we are not alone in our struggles and that imperfection is a natural part of the human experience. 

Kristin Neff is a prominent figure in the field of self-compassion, as she has dedicated her work to exploring the importance of self-compassion as a transformative practice. In contrast to self-esteem, Neff argues that self-compassion offers a healthier and more sustainable approach to self-worth.

Here is a popular lecture from Kristin Neff on the key differences between self-compassion and self-esteem:

While self-esteem relies on external validation, comparisons, and the pursuit of feeling special or superior, self-compassion is based on self-acceptance, mindfulness, and unconditional self-care. It allows individuals to embrace their imperfections, acknowledge their struggles, and respond to themselves with kindness and understanding. This helps address some of the root causes of sneak eating, such as perfectionism and the pressure to perform.

Both Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion and Brene Brown’s shame resilience theory offer valuable insight for addressing the root causes of sneak eating. Brown’s theory seeks to overcome shame through vulnerability and empathy while Neff emphasizes the importance of self-compassion and treating oneself with non-judgment. These are all essential elements for overcoming sneak eating behaviors and finding healthier ways of coping without food.

Bravely Moving Past Sneak Eating Tendencies

If you struggle with sneak eating, know that you are not alone. I have been there and I know how difficult the cycle of guilt and shame can be. Although it took me a few years to reach out to a therapist, and by then my days of sneak eating were fortunately already behind me, I wish I did it sooner — and I hope that you will provide that same level of care to yourself, too. You are worthy of self-compassion and self-care.

If you’d like to learn more about my personal approach to stopping compulsive eating – which includes behaviors like sneak eating – check out my free ebook below. It is not junk just to get into your inbox, and I am sure you will LOVE it!

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