How much of your eating is done furtively?
Are you always relaxed and open when it comes to eating, or does part of your relationship with food take place in secret? With certain types of food getting a really bad rap, eating them means we can feel tainted by association. Particularly if we eat them a lot.
According to the dictionary, furtive is an adjective which means secretive – attempting to avoid notice or attention, typically because of guilt or a belief that discovery would lead to trouble.
It may be at times when you won’t be seen, maybe late at night when everyone else is in bed. Or places where you are out of sight, when you’re driving perhaps.
Whenever and wherever it happens, furtive eating can mean all the calories but not much pleasure. You might be consuming the food whilst simultaneously trying to squash the desire for it, and you might speed up your eating to get it all over with before you’re discovered.
The unhappy brother of the win-win situation, this lose-lose scenario means you feel bad and miss out on the pleasure that you could have had from the food.
Why might being discovered eating lead to trouble?
If I’m discovered eating what someone else judges to be too much, or the wrong thing, the judgement is about my lack of restraint. In our modern world, a plentiful supply of food means that self-restraint around eating, perhaps for the first time in human history, is part of navigating through the day.
This gets additionally complicated because self-restraint has come to be seen as a personal choice, as though we’re all on a level playing field. Not so. Our gut hormones and the appetite system they are a part of, vary significantly between people so that what drives us to eat differs.
Being judged negatively about what or how much we eat comes from other people, but can also become internalised. You might find yourself eating furtively even if there’s no-one else around. Why? Because you are now judging yourself to be eating wrongly, and you don’t really want to witness yourself doing that.
Amal finds it hard to remember when she began eating furtively. She recalls sneaking sweets up to her room and hiding the wrappers way back as a young girl, and it seems to be something that has stuck with her into middle age.
She has a strong sense that she shouldn’t be buying and eating sweets at her age, particularly because her GP has told her that she is pre-diabetic and that she should lose some weight. This alarming news coupled with feeling disapproved of has unfortunately increased rather than decreased the amount she is secretly consuming.
Feeling ashamed of eating chocolate
Amal is now in a bind. She wants to lose weight and wants to avoid developing diabetes, but she can’t see how to change such a long-standing and, let’s face it, pleasurable habit.
What is going on psychologically when we eat furtively?
Furtive eating is a form of experiential avoidance. We are trying not to feel or experience something that is actually happening.
Trying to avoid or move away from an uncomfortable desire or feeling can leave us stuck in an avoidant loop where we try not to want and not to have, but we end up having and then feeling shame or regret.
How to break the furtive eating cycle
In a habitual pattern of furtive eating, there’s the eating and there’s the furtiveness. In the past you may have tried to cut out the eating, but maybe what you’d find more helpful is cutting out the furtiveness.
Steps to help reduce furtive eating
Approaching the issue in this way, where it’s the furtiveness that you’re aiming to change as a first step, means being more able to be more open with yourself about your desire to eat, and being more willing to experience the eating itself with a bit less judgement. And a lot more pleasure.
What Amal did that helped
Amal and I talked about the steps in the sequence of her furtive eating. The step that came before the eating was smuggling chocolate bars into the house so her husband wouldn’t see. What preceded that was buying the chocolate bars on her way home, at the mini-supermarket or when she was paying for petrol.
Cutting out the furtive eating all at once seemed too big a step, so as a step in the right direction, she decided that she would still buy the chocolate bars but do something different with them when she got them home. Her options (she chose these options herself) were to throw them in the bin without opening them, put them in the cupboard for her husband to eat or to make an event of eating one and to focus on enjoying the pleasure. This third option was to be done fully witnessing herself eating, to engage in the experience as much as possible.
No one of these three options was to be seen as better than any of the others, and we framed the task in terms of discovering what would happen to the furtiveness and the feelings that came with it.
Trial, error and experimentation
Like all changes using Appetite Retraining, I suggested to Amal that she approach this with a mind-set of experimenting. When something didn’t ‘work’, that was useful feedback. So she embarked on this mini-adventure and found that what she did more often was to put the chocolate in the cupboard for her husband to eat. Interestingly, she found that addressing the furtiveness led to a dramatic reduction in her secretive buying of chocolate bars. The number she ate herself went right down and her sense of flexible control around eating increased.
As Amal herself said, “this is evolution (of my eating habits) not revolution”.
How might this help you?
You may have already noticed how this blog might be relevant to you. Perhaps what would help your eating habits evolve towards less secretiveness around eating would include:
- Allow yourself to want and to have food, including treats.
- Be more open with yourself about your desire to eat and your desire to have treats.
- Acknowledge to yourself that you sometimes want to shield those desires from view.
- Turn towards the desire to eat.
- Notice it and name it. “I notice the thought that I really fancy a chocolate bar right now”. “I notice a sense of pleasurable anticipation of having this food”.
- Frame it as a healthy desire – “I am able to notice this yearning for enjoyable food and I choose to enjoy this pleasure”.
- Make an occasion of eating it, with a little bit of ceremony. This could involve particular kit – a special plate with a serviette at a table perhaps.
What if it’s really not what you want to be doing?
Sometimes, eating energy-dense foods that are easy to consume with speed can become hurtful to you. Rather than self-love, the eating can involve self-harm. If you feel that your secretive eating may be a form of self-harm, notice and name with compassion that you sometimes punish yourself through food, and then think about how to seek help.
Resources that may help you here are talking with your doctor or visiting the website of the charity BEAT.
Photo by Annie Spratt for Unsplash