Secret Eating: Why You’re Sneaking Food & 3 Ways to Stop

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Of all the unwanted behaviors we can have around food, secret eating, sometimes called sneak eating, or even guilty eating, is one of the most fascinating of them all. So many of us find ourselves sneaking food, eating under the cover of darkness, or taking our food to a special place where no one will find us, and indulging in it with equal parts of guilt and excitement.

When we eat in secret, we’ll often do our best to hide the evidence. Of course, the idea of sneaking food is to enjoy it as best we can and make sure no one finds out. So we always need to be alert around maintaining our secret, and our innocence.

Sneaking food is the kind of behavior that we can feel compelled to do. Meaning, we can’t easily stop ourselves. A part of us doesn’t want all the guilt, but another part of us can’t seem to resist the temptation. 

Let’s take a deeper look at secret eating and get to the bottom of why we do it, and how to let it go.  

In this article, I’ll talk about:

  • The unintended repercussions of secret eating
  • The hidden psychology behind sneaking food
  • The importance of the “Criminal” Eating Archetype
  • How evolutionary biology helps explain secret eating
  • The 3 tools to help you transform secret eating

Let’s dive in:

Secret Eating & Human Nature

We don’t need to look very far to find the roots of secret eating in history and culture. In fact, one of the most well-known stories in the world, the tale of Adam and Eve, is based on the act of sneaking food. 

As the story goes, the first couple was given an all-important food rule: 

Don’t eat the apple. 

Somehow, they are tempted to break this rule. Notice how they assume they’re not being watched when they break the rule. And then soon afterward, we find Adam and Eve hiding in the garden, feeling terribly guilty, and for the first time, they’re ashamed of their naked bodies. What’s worse, the big guy upstairs then punishes them for sneak-eating the one forbidden food.

Is any of this sounding familiar to you?

For a majority of people, there’s an initial “rush” when we sneak food. It’s exciting. It gets our adrenaline pumping. It’s a unique kind of high. But soon after, it’s easy to fall into all the unwanted repercussions of secret eating. 

We can:

  • Feel guilty or ashamed
  • Be obsessed about concealing our crime
  • Experience bloating from eating too much or too fast
  • Feel fatigued or brain foggy if we consumed too much sugar
  • Drop into deep fear that we’ll gain weight
  • Find ourselves in self-judgment, self-hate, and self-attack
  • Live in a constant state of agitation around what we just did, and what we will likely do soon again in the future

All these repercussions of sneaking food are very predictable. In fact, they’re quite common. And they can be very uncomfortable. 

That’s because secret eating can impact just about every other dimension of our life:

  • Our relationships 
  • Our work 
  • Our focus 
  • Our friendships
  • Our sexuality 
  • Our self-worth 
  • And more 

Secret eating can be a haunting secret that we don’t want anyone to know about.

The first step to saying goodbye to secret eating and freeing yourself of its unwanted consequences is to understand it more deeply. 

So let’s take a look…

The Psychology of Secret Eating

In all of our personal development programs and professional certification training that we teach at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, there are a number of powerful principles that help us understand our eating psychology more thoroughly and deeply. One of those key principles is this:

There’s always a brilliant reason, rooted in biology, psychology, or both, as to why we do an unwanted eating behavior.

In other words, there are good, logical explanations for why we participate in behaviors that we say we don’t want to do. Knowing these explanations helps us better understand what’s driving us.

Here’s the first brilliant reason rooted in psychology as to why we would sneak food:

We all have an inner criminal… and other “eating archetypes.”

More specifically, we all contain the Criminal Archetype – one of many archetypes within us influencing our behavior. 

Archetypes are like sub-personalities inside of us. Every human being on planet Earth has a multiplicity of archetypes or personas. When it comes to eating behaviors, common archetypes include but are certainly not limited to personalities such as:

  • The Criminal
  • The Rebel
  • The Child
  • The Perfectionist
  • The Hedonist
  • The Champion 
  • The Queen/King
  • And many more…

When you’re with your best friend, for example, you are likely in your Best Friend archetype. When you’re with the person you’re attracted to, you can be in your Lover archetype.

Believe it or not, we all have a criminal archetype somewhere inside. It’s the part of us that wants to break the rules. To test our parents. To test society. To fool the system. To be outside the law. To experience our dark side. To feel the rush of doing something illegal or forbidden.

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Ever wondered why it's so hard to eat what you know you "should" eat?

This free self-discovery tool will review the hidden psychology of your eating archetypes - giving you the power to understand what really drives your eating choices.

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There’s an old saying that goes, “Stolen sweets are best.”

Are you getting the picture?

So, for those of us who engage in secret eating or sneaking food, a part of us just wants to experience the thrill of the crime. It can feel so good in the moment. And then, there’s an equal high in being on the alert and making sure no one ever finds out. It’s your little secret. And the thing about secrets is this:

Secret eating makes us feel in control, more powerful.

Secret eating gives us a sense of being more powerful. It conveys a certain authority. 

It makes us feel like we have conquered the system, defied the law, and we now triumphantly stand outside the rules of society, of our parents, our family, and even the rules of health and nutrition.

But such power is short-lived

That’s because this sense of power is not born from true self-development and real accomplishment. We are always nervously looking over our shoulder when we’re constantly living in our criminal mind. 

There’s yet another potent reason rooted in our psychology as to why we eat in secret:

We’ve accepted the (toxic) belief that some eating is “bad”.

I have worked with thousands of people over the years who hold the toxic and erroneous belief called “Food is illegal, and therefore eating is a crime.

Why do so many people believe that food is illegal?

Well, that’s what the world teaches us.

We are taught that weight is our enemy, body fat is our enemy, and if we have too much of these, or if the number on the scale is not acceptable, then our life will be one of misery. 

In our day and age, body fat is seen as a sure sign that we are unlovable.

We are taught to believe that having body fat means we will never find true love. That we can’t be our real and truest self. And that we can never be happy. 

So with this kind of toxic input from our media, our music, our social platforms, and more, we naturally conclude that food should be illegal since it’s food that seems to be the culprit in making us fat.

But the problem is, we need food. We crave it. Our biology demands it. We must have it to live.

So we find an odd middle ground where we see eating as a crime, and we are the criminal who MUST commit the crime of eating.

And of course, as any good criminal knows: 

The best way to do any crime is to do it quickly and to do it in secret.

But as any good criminal also knows: 

We eventually must be punished for our crimes.

So we create self-punishments like:

  • Harsh self-attacking thoughts
  • Intense guilt and shame
  • Impossible to follow dieting and food restriction
  • Punishing exercise
  • Eating even more food that we fear will make us fat

Are you beginning to see how our inner nature can drive secret eating? Can you understand how the behaviors that we believe are unstoppable and unexplainable actually have brilliant reasons for their existence?

Before we look at how to transform secret eating, let’s take a few moments and understand even more, the factors that might be driving it.  

“Good” Foods & “Bad” Foods

Female who secret eats holding a scale, deciding whether a given food is "good" or "bad"
It’s common to think about foods as “good” or “bad,” and that we’re a “bad” person when we indulge.

Most people I meet have a list in their minds of the “good” foods, and the “bad” foods. Meaning: we have a clear idea of the foods that are healthy for me to eat, and a clear idea of the foods that will likely detract from my health or make me gain weight.

Our lists tend to differ, while at the same time, they share some commonalities. 

For example, some people have meat on their bad list, while for others, they consider it good. Most people agree that vegetables are on the good-for-me-to-eat list. Many people agree that sugar is on the bad-guy list.

So here’s the conundrum:

So many of the foods on our “bad list” are some of the tastiest and most alluring:

  • Junk food
  • Fast food
  • Fried food
  • Ice cream
  • Sugar of all kinds 

So if a food is on your bad list, and you eat that bad food, what does that make you?

It makes you a “bad person.” A criminal.

And what do we do to bad people?

We punish them.

This punishment is not just shame, guilt, and self-attack, as you’d expect. We also punish ourselves through:

  • Dieting 
  • Exercise 
  • Negative self-talk 
  • Body shaming
  • And more

So we have essentially punished ourselves for the crime of eating a food that we ourselves have labeled as illegal. 

Can you see the irony here?

When we judge a food as morally bad, we will eventually judge and punish ourselves for eating it.

We’ll talk more about this soon.

But for now, let’s take a look at one more brilliant reason why we would sneak food or participate in secret eating. And that reason is all about our genetic hardwiring.

How Evolutionary Biology Can Drive Secret Eating

There’s a part of us that’s a bit of an animal. Meaning, we are driven by instincts that have been selected for eons of time in our genetic evolution.

These instincts harken back to a time when we were living a different existence, one that was based on survival.

Simply put, the behavior of secret eating actually has a brilliant reason for its existence that’s rooted in our survival biology. 

Secret eating is actually imprinted in the most primitive and instinctual part of our brain. Specifically: 

We are programmed to eat food far away from our competitors. 

When an animal in nature makes a kill, it wants that kill all for itself. We aren’t interested in sharing our feast with any other species. And there are plenty of other creatures out there who are more than happy to take from us what is rightfully ours.

In our primal world then, food was a competition, and the best way to enjoy the food that you just caught is to eat it in a secret place.

When we eat in a hiding spot – secret eating – we are playing the probabilities that no other animals will see us, and our survival will thus be ensured.

Have you ever given your dog or cat a special treat, and they run away to eat it somewhere out of sight? Or have you witnessed in nature any animal that’s caught some food for itself, and it immediately takes off with that food to parts unknown?

A hawk will always fly away with its prey and eat it in a secret spot. Carnivorous mammals will most often do the same.

So, secret eating is an important evolutionary strategy. 

Well, how does this apply to modern-day humans?

Have you ever had the experience of having a favorite dessert or fun food in the house and you felt compelled to eat it before anyone else could get to it? Or have you ever “hidden” a food somewhere in your house to ensure no one else could find it?

If you grew up with many brothers and sisters, or have many children now, you’ve seen that this food competition is very much alive and well in modern humans!

We can be very territorial around food. 

Even if no one else is truly competing for it, we are often instinctually driven to make sure the food that we want most is ours. For this reason: 

Secret eating, for many people, is a symbolic ritual of ownership. 

We tell ourselves: 

“This food is mine, and mine alone. I will eat it where no one else can see me. I have total control over this food. I can eat however much I want and you can’t stop me. I have the power. I am the winner. I’m in charge here. I am the master of this food, and the master of my moment.”

For many of us then, secret eating is a way to feel more in control of our life. It confers a sense of power and authority.

If this describes you, the remedy is very straightforward.

Healthier ways to create control and power in your life:

Here are some ways to explore creating a sense of power and control in your life in ways other than eating in secret. 

  • Make a list of all your interests and passions. Then, look at that list and see how you can pursue those passions and make them more a part of your life. The more you are inspired about your day, the less need you’ll have to sneak food.
  • Make a list of all your talents and natural gifts. Then, look at that list and see where you can be sharing those gifts even more with the world. Once again, the more you share your gifts and talents with the world, the less need you’ll have to eat in secret.
  • Lastly, look at the places in life where you might be holding back your true voice. Your feelings. Your opinions. Your self-expression. Then, see how you can start being more of the real you. Take risks. Speak your truth more. Express your creativity. As you unleash this power more and more, the need to feel power and control by eating in secret will naturally subside. 

How to Transform Secret Eating and Let Go of Sneaking Food

If you’re ready to say goodbye to the unwanted habit of secret eating and sneaking food, you’re already well on your way. That’s because you have a deeper understanding of what this behavior is all about.

And with that, here are three of my favorite strategies to help you along your way:

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Discover Your Eating Archetype

Ever wondered why it's so hard to eat what you know you "should" eat?

This free self-discovery tool will review the hidden psychology of your eating archetypes - giving you the power to understand what really drives your eating choices.

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We respect your privacy and do not share your email address without your express permission.

Strategy #1: Embrace & Reform the Criminal Within

This is your number one strategy to work with secret eating: 

Embrace the Criminal Eating Archetype within you. This means doing your best to fully accept that this is part of you – of all of us – and that it is just doing what it does best:

“I have a criminal persona within who loves to do its best job as a criminal. It loves to commit crimes, especially when it comes to food.”

By embracing the criminal within you, you decrease the intensity of this archetype. You take away the immediacy of it. This will help you bring down your stress temperature around secret eating. 

When we don’t embrace the criminal mind within us, when we try to resist or deny it, it will tend to act out against us even more.

Here are three journaling exercises to help you embrace and reform the criminal within:

Journal Exercise #1: Get to Know Your Criminal Side

Write a full description of the criminal within you. Pretend it’s like a person.

  • Who are they?
  • How do they conduct themself? How do they dress and behave?
  • What foods do they like to eat in secret? 
  • What excites them most about secret eating? 
  • What challenges them most about sneaking food? 
  • And how do they tend to punish themself for the crime of secret eating?

The idea here is simply to get to know and better understand your unique criminal archetype.

Journal Exercise #2: Give Your Inner Criminal A Better Cause

For this exercise, ask yourself: Other than turning to secret eating, how can I engage the criminal archetype within me? How can I give her productive activities to do? Are there ways that I can encourage this archetype to work for me, and not against me? 

Some examples of channeling the criminal mind in a healthier way include: 

  • Noticing the places in your life or in the world where you are inspired around social justice causes. 
  • What underserved or underprivileged groups do you support? 
  • What kinds of crimes do you stand against? 
  • Corporate crime? 
  • Injustices in the medical system? 
  • Racial injustice? 
  • Environmental crimes? 

The point here is that the criminal mind is often attuned to crime in general. It can spot other criminals. And when it has a cause to get behind, it has less of a need to commit its own crimes. 

So you are looking to give the criminal archetype a higher cause, to use it to stand up to injustice, rather than channeling that energy against yourself.

Journal Exercise #3: Connect & Share Your Story

For this last exercise, ask yourself: 

  • Who do I need to keep my secret eating from? 
  • Who do I not want to know? 
  • What would happen if this person or persons found out?”

Here, I am asking you to consider the amount of power you have given to keeping your secret eating a secret. 

One of the best strategies to embrace and reform the criminal within us is to confess. 

Meaning, to share with the people closest to us, who love us the most, that we are experiencing this challenge, and we’d like some love and support. We’d like some understanding, and to share this secret so we can be more in connection with others and less in hiding. 

Here’s the bottom line:

Honest connection helps heal the criminal mind.

This is one of the fastest ways to alleviate the guilt and shame of secret eating. Be in relationship with others who care. Share your story. Find the courage within you to come out of the secret eating closet and be supported and seen by others.

Strategy #2: Let Go of the Concept of Good vs Bad Foods

This is all about belief change. Much of our secret eating is driven by our strong beliefs around good foods and bad foods. Here’s the thing:

Yes, there are certain foods that have a good chance to detract from your health, and certain foods that have a good chance to enhance your health.

However: food itself is not morally good or morally bad. 

Meaning, no candy bars have ever conspired in an evil master plan to rot your teeth. Vegetables don’t have little angelic halos around their heads. Food has no moral value. It’s simply neutral.

Think of a knife. Is a knife good or bad? Well, it depends on how you use it. The same with food.

When you look at food as either “health enhancing” or “health detracting,” and take away the moral power you have given it, then food will have less power over you

You will have less of a need to punish yourself for eating it. 

So, begin to pay attention to how you label food as morally good or morally bad: 

  • Notice how labeling a food as “bad” will drive you to eat it in secret.
  • Observe how this can drive you into self attacking thoughts if you eat a food on your bad list. 
  • And notice how looking at the world of food in a black or white way simply does not serve you.

Which leads us to our final strategy for transforming secret eating… 

Strategy #3: Let Go of the Toxic Belief that Eating is a Crime

The most common reason to eat in secret is that we are convinced that eating is a crime. That food is illegal. We likely believe this because we fear gaining weight, we fear having body fat, and we are in judgment of ourselves for not having the perfect body. 

We need to let go of the toxic belief that eating is a crime if we wish to find peace and freedom with food. 

I consider that a fact.

How do you let go of this belief? 

Here are some suggestions:

  • First, set the intention for yourself that you truly wish to let go of this belief. Even though you don’t know how, you can still commit yourself to this outcome.
  • Next, notice whenever this belief arises, or when you see it in action. This means that any time you’re about to sneak food, catch yourself. Ask yourself, “Can I choose, in this moment, to eat without hiding? Can I allow myself to eat freely, to be brave enough to see eating as my birthright, and not a crime? Can I allow pleasure with food to be a joy, rather than a criminal act?
  • And finally, make sure to find a friend, a coach, or a loved one who you can honestly share with. Decriminalize the act of eating by having someone in your life that you aren’t hiding from. Once again,this is a more powerful strategy than you might imagine.

So many people who engage in secret eating think that they’re the only ones who are doing this unwanted behavior. That’s simply not true. Stated in the positive, you’re not alone.

Be patient with yourself. It takes time to change our habits, our beliefs, and to find love for ourselves. Don’t expect perfection. Take baby steps. And celebrate any small successes.

For a deeper dive into the Food Criminal Archetype, and to learn about the other key eating personalities within us, I suggest you take advantage of this free mini-course I’ve created, The 8 Eating Archetypes: A Self-Discovery Tool.

You’ll learn about the voices with you that drive your unwanted eating challenges, and how to help transform them.

I hope this has been helpful for you. We’d love to hear how these strategies work to give you more food freedom and better understand and manage your emotional eating challenges.


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