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 thrilled 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 number one go-to for people who want to lose weight.
The reason why eating in secret should not be humiliating is because it happens more often than you think -- it is just not something many people talk about. I hear these kinds of admissions all the time, mainly because dieting is a root cause. 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's 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 eat your favourite meal you prepared for your family, you are choking down your "special" meal of broiled fish and steamed veggies. Feeling deprived and 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:
After taking a few manic bite fulls 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 stuffing your face.
There are a few things that may have pushed you in the direction of overeating:
1. Feeling deprived and 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 tend to 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.
A wise client recently told me that the key to eating less in secret or out of rebellion is to ask themselves this question:
What am I going to gain from eating this?
Am I going to feel less stressed if I eat this candy bar? Am I going to feel more satisfied or over stuffed if I finish this pizza? Is eating this cookie going to comfort me or make me feel guilty?
It is okay to to eat something because you are stressed or need comfort. The big question is, are you less stressed and comforted by it? If not, then eating that food won't help the current problem.
My client realized that they were eating when not hungry and not getting anything out of it. In their journey to repair their relationship with food and manage their weight, my client brilliantly said to me: "It's not about what you eat, it's understanding why you eat."
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