Eating disorders encompass more than overeating or starving yourself. A new survey shows that 6 in 10 women eat in secret. Here, one woman shares why
"I work in the health industry, so I should really know better," sighs Eva, a 20-something fitness instructor, before confessing her food secret. "Over the holidays, clients kept bringing in treats for us; we were all like 'No, I don't eat sugar, I don't eat gluten,' and we'd pile them up in the break room. But I love cookies and chocolates and when I was the only person there, I'd eat a few really fast. Then I was embarrassed because everyone would know I was the one who broke down and ate it, right? So I'd hide what I ate by rearranging the cookies or hiding the wrappers in the trash. I always feel so bad when I do it—why do I have no willpower?" (Try this Trick to Having More Willpower.)
In Eva's defense, she was teaching three hour-long cardio classes in a row—it's hardly surprising her body was craving some quick fuel. But regardless of why, she should definitely not feel like she's the only one. A recent survey of 2,000 women found that 60 percent of us admit to "secret eating," especially when we're indulging in forbidden foods, and 23 percent cop to hiding the evidence just like Eva.
"I don't know why I care so much," Eva says. "It's my body and it's my choice. It's not anyone else's business. I don't know why I do it but I just can't stop."
And it's not just at work that she struggles. At home, she says she'll sometimes make a pan of brownies and, after realizing she's eaten too many, will either bury the rest in the garbage or quickly eat them so her boyfriend won't know. "I'll even make sure to do all the dishes so there's no sign," she says. "He'll come home and be like 'What's that smell? Is that brownies?' and I'm like 'Nope, no brownies here! Don't know what you're talking about!'" (Find out why Breaking Bad Diet Habits Is SO Hard.)
Eva's willingness to lie to her partner is also very common. The survey found that 55 percent of women were most concerned about keeping their eating habits a secret from their husbands, boyfriends, or significant others. "A while ago, I was eating some mini Snickers bars and my boyfriend was like, 'Really? You're eating all those?' and at the time I was like 'Yeah, so?' but I really did feel bad. I wished I'd only eaten one," she adds, explaining why she keeps a candy stash in her car. "But when I am mad at him, I go eat a bunch. It's my way of rebelling I guess."
In fact, the majority of the women in the survey said that they eat in secret most often when they're feeling angry, sad, or stressed, and that food is a way to deal with negative emotions.
"This study 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, an ambassador for LighterLife, the company that sponsored the survey. "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."
It's this emotional aspect that experts are most concerned about. While the occasional bout of secret eating is totally normal, Welch says that if you find yourself frequently eating in secret, it can be a sign of a larger issue. It can lead to binge eating, purging, and other disordered eating behaviors. Even if you're not feeling guilty about your food, she cautions that chronically snacking in secret can mean replacing nutritious meals with junk calories—not good for your waistline or your health. (If you're snacking, try Junk Food that's Good for You.)
Eva knows she needs to quit being a secret eater, saying she thinks she just needs to stop worrying so much about what people might think. "It's easy to feel like everyone is watching and judging you, especially if you're not like the skinniest person and you're eating cookies," she says. "But I'm allowed to eat good food and enjoy it! And I'm definitely not enjoying it if I'm hiding in the employee bathroom to eat it."