Hoping No One Walks In? Secretive Eating Explained

You come into your child’s room to make the bed and tidy up, and that’s when you notice dozens of mini Snickers wrappers under the bed.  When you ask your daughter about it, she explains that her friend brought them over and ate them, but swears she didn’t eat any.

The family-sized packs of pretzels and cookies you bought yesterday are nearly gone, and your teen explains that he spilled them on the floor so he had to throw them out.

You get home from a long day of work and your partner is out for the evening. You buy the cookies you have been craving and finish the box, and then take the trash out before your partner returns.

While out for dinner with friends, you order a salad. On your way home from the restaurant, you pick up a burrito at Chipotle so you can enjoy the food without others around.

What do these snapshots have in common? They capture key aspects of a phenomenon called secretive eating. As we have previously described, there is a range of behaviors (and thoughts and feelings) along the spectrum from “normal” eating to eating disorders. Secretive eating – like skipping meals, adhering to strict eating rules, or feeling out of control while eating – is an important behavior to keep an eye on. Here’s why.

What is secretive eating?

  • Secretive eating is eating with the intent to hide what or how much you are eating.
  • Secretive eating typically feels…well…secretive, stealthy or furtive.
  • This is one of the behaviors that can signal disordered eating or negative attitudes about food in kids and teens. Behaviors that can signify secretive eating in young people include:
    • Finding food wrappers in the child’s room or backpack.
    • Unexplained missing food.
    • Excess weight gain despite a child seeming to eat very little.

Secretive eating is not…

Eating alone. Most of us eat alone, but it does not feel secretive. The difference between eating alone and eating in secret is that when eating alone, it would feel just fine if someone else walked in and saw us eating.

Binge eating or out-of-control eating. Binge eating is something very specific: eating a large amount of food and feeling out of control, whereas secretive eating might involve small or large amounts of food, and does not have to include the experience of loss of control.

How common is secretive eating?

In studies of children and adolescents who are at-risk for being overweight (based on having an overweight parent) or are overweight themselves, secretive eating is estimated to occur in approximately one in five children and one in three adolescents.

Since scientists have only begun to study the phenomenon of secretive eating, we do not know how common this behavior is in other groups of children or adults.

Does it matter if you, or your child, eat in secret?

Some of the initial studies on this topic indicate that secretive eating may be associated with other forms of disordered eating and more psychological problems. For instance:

  • A large study showed that youngsters who eat in secret are more likely to be overly concerned with their eating, body shape, and body weight.
  • Separate studies of children and adolescents showed that eating in secret was associated with symptoms of depression.
  • Adolescents with secretive eating are more likely to report restrictive eating behavior and purging than those who do not eat in secret.

Taken together, these findings suggest that eating in secret matters for kids, especially inasmuch as it may be a harbinger for other issues.

In adults, researchers still have not studied if secretive eating matters above and beyond other forms of disordered eating. That said, eating behavior that makes you feel bad or interferes with day-to-day life, like enjoying a dinner out with friends or a night in to yourself, is usually worth understanding better and working on.

Why does my child eat in secret?

Parents naturally wonder about all kinds of things their kids do and secretive eating is no different. But when parents suspect secretive eating, they may comment to us, “She is usually a good kid. She is always truthful” or “He has never lied about anything else.”

Unraveling the mystery of why your child is eating in secret may be challenging, but it will be more valuable than equating the behavior with any kind of character judgment. Understanding the behavior can help you address the behavior AND deal directly with underlying emotions or triggers.

In most cases, children want to be “good” and please the adults around them. When their wants (such as having an “off limit” food) conflict with what they know will please their parents or others, they may resort to engaging in the behavior in secret. For more information about this and other reasons children hide things, see Why Your Child Lies.

5 Steps to Addressing Your Child’s Secretive Eating

  1. First, put yourself in his or her shoes. Do children at school tease your child about weight? Do members of your household comment on your child’s eating (e.g. “Are you sure you want that for a snack?”)? Has your child been made, intentionally or not, to feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed about his or her eating?
  2. Talk calmly and openly with your child about what you have observed or imagined. Explain that you will not be angry if your child is truthful and that you just want to help him or her.
  3. Make a renewed effort to establish family mealtimes. In addition to ensuring that your child is not skipping meals or snacking alone, family meals also provide an opportunity for you to model a healthy relationship with food.
  4. Encourage your child or teen to eat out in the open while minimizing negative or shameful comments about your child’s eating or body weight or shape. Check out this related post for more from Columbia team members on how to talk to your child about healthy eating.
  5. If the behavior persists, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician. An objective opinion can you decide how best to help your child going forward.
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