Are you so ashamed of your eating habits that you hide them from others – and even yourself? The first step to changing a damaging relationship with food is to let go of your shame.

Are you a secret eater? Do you hide your eating from others for fear of being judged? Do you even hide some of your eating from yourself? Many people trying to lose weight live a double life food-wise. They are anxious to eat healthily in front of others so no one can reproach them, then pig out or buy a chocolate bar (or three) as soon as no one’s looking.

Of course, we all prefer to eat privately, even secretly sometimes. Maybe it’s just too much of a bore to conform to the usual social rules. So much easier to eat baked beans straight from the tin! The key to whether your secret eating is a problem is simple. How would you feel if someone whose opinion you care about found you at it? If you’d simply feel some social embarrassment, then join the club! We’re all human. But if you’d feel deep shame and guilt, that’s different.

Eating in a trance

Is some of your eating secret even from yourself? Of course, if you’re not trying to lose weight, there’s no particular reason to remember everything that passes your lips. But if you’re on a weight-loss plan, a food diary can be eye-opening. Studies show that overweight people often simply don’t remember much of what they eat. They say – and believe – that they eat a healthy amount when it’s really a whole lot more. It’s not that just that anyone can genuinely forget those quick snacks. If you have emotional conflicts and stresses about weight loss, it’s extra hard to recall every mouthful. In sheer self-protection, your mind may blur the truth, so you eat in a sort of trance.

Flavoured with shame

Secret eating is a vicious circle. It leaves you feeling different and isolated. That stash of chocolate or cake stuffed hastily into your mouth or the biscuits in the office drawer are all liberally flavoured with shame. Other people, you feel, can be open and upfront. They’re not concealing some of their eating as though it were a dirty habit. They have nothing to be embarrassed about. They can look people in the eye, knowing they’re as good as everyone else. Whereas you will always live with the dread of being found out, full of excuses to give others – and yourself. Your feel disgusted with yourself – and how dreadful if others did too.

The reason people develop secret eating habits is often simply fear – usually fear of being judged by others or themselves. There’s guilt and, colouring everything, shame. And the trouble with feeling ashamed, research shows, is that it undermines your ability to regulate yourself. It makes it harder, not easier, to control the behaviour you’re ashamed of.

Letting go of shame and getting back in charge of your eating starts with facing your deep feelings. Bringing shame and guilt into awareness is painful, but the pain is something people with eating issues may have been burdened with for years. You can be so used to it, you hardly even notice it – it’s just the way the inside of your head feels. Well, take a quiet moment to get in touch with your emotions about eating and food. Drift back to episodes when you’ve felt intensely ashamed or guilty or inadequate or humiliated. See these experiences calmly and distantly – imagine they happened to someone else, someone you like but aren’t close to. Or pretend you’re watching a film or TV drama.

Your mind may be churning with harsh, judgemental self-criticism. These unpleasant emotions and cruel self-talk are a natural way of trying to deal with weight issues. It can seem strange and wrong NOT to feel them. How could you let yourself eat a double portion of chips and a tub of ice cream? But if you’re a secret eater, none of this mental pain has worked! It hasn’t brought eating into balance in your life. It’s just added an extra layer of stress and suffering, which has forced you into more secrecy in sheer self-defence.

The way forward is to treat yourself with kindness, compassion and understanding. If a friend had the same issues, you wouldn’t tear her to shreds, would you? You’d realise that her eating habits were only a small part of her. So treat yourself the same way! Accept that you’re human, with strengths and vulnerabilities.

Food isn’t immoral

Don’t talk about food in moral terms. It seems natural – even amusing – to describe food as sinful, bad or forbidden. That gooey desert is ‘naughty’. Think! What are you telling yourself when you eat this immoral food? What sort of person does that make you? You may think it’s a joke – everybody talks about chocolate and crisps like that – but the deep brain has no sense of humour.

Going public can be the antidote to secret shame. Bu confessing to your nearest or dearest or your colleagues and friends that you struggle with bingeing or are living a double life, calorie-wise, may not be helpful. You don’t want to open yourself up to condemnation and criticism. You’re doing enough of that already. A weight-loss club, such as Rosemary Conley Online, or support group or even a friend who is also trying to lose weight can be a better option. They will have struggled with the same issues and you will realise that you are just one person among others, not different and not worse. You’ll understand them, admire and respect their determination and persistence, and treat their vulnerabilities with compassion. This is the way you should see yourself and treat yourself. This is the way forward.