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Seven Steps to Stomp Out Sneak Eating

By Pamela Peeke, MD, FACP, MPHAugust 26, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

The other day I was conducting a telephone appointment with Cari, one of my patients located in the Midwest. She’d had a history of obesity since childhood, culminating in an all-time high of 330 pounds in her early forties. Fed up, she regrouped and turned her life around. Today, she’s 167 pounds and continuing to refine her body composition through healthy lifestyle habits. While we discussed her progress during our call, she recounted a perplexing experience she had the night before.

After working all day, Cari went for a walk/run before dinner. After eating a healthy meal with her husband, she retired into the TV room to read. She took a peach into the room with her as an after dinner treat, something she enjoyed and had budgeted for in her daily calories. She was savoring the fruit when she suddenly heard her husband coming down the hall. Taken by surprise, she became anxious, and without thinking, she took the peach and hid it under her book. He popped his head in the doorway and asked her a simple question about plans for the next day and left in a New York minute. She sat there stunned. “Why did I react that way?” she asked me. “It was a peach for crying out loud! Why did I feel guilty?”

Cari’s brain kneejerked right into sneak eater’s mode when she was caught by surprise. Eating after dinner, even though hers was legitimate and planned, was deeply associated with her old binging habits which were primarily nocturnal. Hiding the food was a well-honed unconscious and mindless response to her years of living in fear that someone would see her eating. She’d been surrounded by the food police in her life (disapproving parents, critical grandparents) and the ridicule of the mean kids who taunted her in childhood and into adolescence. She felt she did not deserve to eat in public, for that was left to the thin people “who could eat anything.” Her sneak eating left her filled with shame and guilt, which quickly transformed into anger at the unfairness of her life. Food became her secret friend and comforter, protecting her from the pain of life’s stresses.

Outside of eating perfunctory meals with her family and friends, she lived another life with her secret foods. She, like so many sneak eaters, developed rituals. Running off to the 7-Eleven, she’d purchase her favorite anesthetics — chocolate bars — which she would ritualistically eat by first cutting off the top and savoring the nugget center, then eating the sides and finally the thick top layer. This was done behind her locked and closed bedroom door, on the floor, in a corner — her secret sanctuary from critical and contemptuous eyes.

Late at night, she’d sneak down to the cellar where the extra freezer held frozen pastries she obsessed about. After removing 10 cookies, Cari would simply rearrange the bag so that it appeared none had been taken. Wrappers from candy were carefully stuffed at the bottom of the garbage can out of sight.

I have found that it takes years for many of my patients to become comfortable with eating in public, as well as eating some foods without feeling afraid of what others might say. Some experts have noted a relationship between sneak eating and poor body image. Once someone has confronted and made peace with their body image, the sneak eating begins to dissipate. This process is not an overnight phenomenon. It takes time to tease out where the negative body image started and do the damage control needed.

In Cari’s case, the brutal food policing, snarky remarks from kids as she grew up, and callous comments by boyfriends along the way cemented an image of an obese loser in her head. She’s pear shaped, with a small waist but large buttocks and thighs. She blamed her troubles on the lower half of her body, about which she constantly spoke in disdain. As she was dropping the majority of her excess weight, she struggled with her body image. The sneak eating continued , with secret forays into drug stores to “score” her sneak food. Sneak eating would emerge mostly when she felt bad about her body. Somehow it had let her down. It only took one look at a photo and she needed to neutralize her pain in her hiding place. Or, after feeling fat in comparison to a slender woman at work, she’d buy food and lock her office door as she popped one cookie or candy after another. She felt others were judging her and thus she didn’t eat as much in their presence. But as soon as the coast was clear, she would race to her sneak foods and hide away as she binged.

Cari and I had been working on having her focus on the wonderful things her body can do. As she shed her pounds, she became more athletic. She is one amazing cyclist. She ran by my side as we did a half-marathon in New York City. We began to work on her pride in physical accomplishment. Her buttocks, thighs and hips did all of this powerful athleticism. She began to realize that she was never going to achieve some ultimate Nirvana of happiness with slender thighs. That was not in the cards for her nor was it ever important. Instead, her legs have taken her on amazing biking and running adventures. She’s about to hike the Grand Canyon. How’s that for a healthy bottom half?

Then, a little miracle happened. The sneak eating stopped. She passed by drug stores and realized that if she really wanted something to eat, she could have it. She learned to budget for her treats and appreciate each of them. She proudly ate her food in public and no longer needed to neutralize pain. Instead, she was celebrating her new found source of joy — her body. The peach incident she chalked up to the momentary unconscious emergence of an old habit. With a sigh of relief, she saw it for what it was. She wasn’t sneaking anything. She was fine.

How about you? Have you had a history of sneak eating? Here are seven steps to help you stomp out sneak eating:

1. Examine your eating habits. What are your sneak eating rituals? How do you sneak eat? What kinds of foods do you choose? When you’re done overeating, what do you do with the wrappers or evidence of sneak eating? When are you most likely to curtail your eating because you feel you’ll be judged? What triggers send you flying into your secret sneak eating rituals? Look at the last time this occurred to you and seek out the connections between trigger and reaction. Late-night eating has a particular air of sneakiness. It’s dark out, no one’s around, just you and your sneak food. How do you feel at that time? Make connections.

2. Write it down. The best way to look at patterns and make connections is to journal it. Just whip out a computer or spiral-bound notebook and with absolute honestly write down what you eat, when and under what circumstances. Reading your journal usually is a real eye-opener.

3. Savor, don’t sneak. If you feel like you’re sneaking food, you’ll scarf up food so fast you’ll get whiplash. Stop. Ask yourself: “What was I thinking before I decided to sneak eat?” Make connections between events, emotions and actions. You’re not going to truly savor and enjoy food you need to eat behind others’ backs. Instead, you’re reacting to something that has occurred in your life. The goal is to savor every morsel of food, not to secretly stuff it into your mouth and feel nothing but remorse, guilt and shame.

4. Focus on your strengths. Here’s where we do lots of body image work. Look at your body. You have tremendous strengths there and you need to take pride in them. Write down your strengths. What can your body do well? The next time you feel bad about your body, whip out your laundry list of positive things you love about your body and neutralize the negative thoughts that send you into a sneak eating binge.

5. Optimize your healthy lifestyle habits. To improve your body image, you need to do the work to eat healthfully as well as stay physically active. Cari would never know about her cycling, hiking and running skills unless she put it out there and did the work to discover her innate abilities. From those assets, she developed a better sense of self and body image. Living a healthy lifestyle lays down the foundation for the elimination of sneak eating. Be patient. Like Cari, people who’ve been sneak eating for a long time will have to be patient with the process of eliminating this habit. Old self-destructive patterns take time to be replaced with healthier, progressive lifestyle habits.

6. Make a commitment. If you feel that you’re about to sneak eat, you probably are. Eating should not be accompanied by guilt and shame. Make a commitment to spend the next 24 hours eating healthfully and fight the urge to take food into a secret place where you eat sneak foods. Start out with a healthy breakfast and eat every 3-4 hours after that. Make certain you’re eating a balance of high quality protein, carbs (veggies, fruit, whole grain) and fat. Stop eating by 8PM each night. Get physical activity. If you’re feeling stressed and anxious, seek other ways to alleviate the angst. These include activities that do not involve sneak eating or self destruction (meditate, breathe, yoga, read a book, call a friend, take a walk). Write down your commitment and take it day by day. Each successful day is a powerful experience that will help you to build a strong foundation for healthy living.

7. Get help. Since sneak eating is associated with body image issues, sometimes we need to get help and guidance with understanding how to come to peace with our body. There are licensed social workers and psychologists who can provide the expertise you’ll need to achieve your goals.

Sneak eating is an outward manifestation of inner turmoil about your body and yourself. Gift yourself with the daily patience and practice to resolve this challenge. Come out of hiding. You deserve to sit up proudly at the table and savor your food and life. You can stomp out sneak eating once and for all.

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