What You Eat When Nobody is Watching
Stephanie RausserWe surveyed more than 600 Health readers to find out what they eat when nobody's looking. Over half wait until no one is home to break into a secret snack stash or head to the grocery store and devour treats on the way home.
We asked: Whats the strangest thing youve eaten solo? The most common answer: something you dug out of the trash. Youre not alone.
86% of Health readers wait until theyre all alone to eat their favorite indulgent foods.
46% of you have been caught digging into a secret stash.
71% of you say youve buried a food wrapper deep in the trash to hide the evidence.
19% of you have snuck something off a friend or spouses plate when he or she went to the restroom.
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Not long ago, I was reveling in a quiet evening at home. My husband was away on a business trip, and our infant daughter was snoozing in her crib. I had just settled down with a book when a small voice in my head pinged me: Pantry. Bottom shelf. I ignored it and continued to read, but the voice became more insistent, more wheedling: Go get it. Youre all alone. Go. Now.
I obediently rose, made my way to the pantrys bottom shelf, and found it: a box of pistachio-flavored instant pudding, stashed behind a bag of crushed flaxseed. In a trance, I began an all-too-familiar ritual: adding two cups of milk to the mix, which was the queasy green color of hospital walls and flecked with desiccated pistachios. Immediately, the goo thickened up, thanks to disodium phosphate and tetrasodium pyrophosphate. Then I slopped it into a large bowl, grabbed a spoon, and happily polished off three of the four servings.
I know. I know. I write for a magazine called Health, for goodness sake. And normally Im a seven-helpings-of-fruit-and-veg, farmers market–attending, supplement-popping flexitarian locavore. But every once in a while, when Im free of my husbands horrified gaze, Ive got to have that instant pudding. Its sweet, its cold, and it reminds me of being a kid, when my favorite babysitter, Nancy, would whip me up a bowl after my folks went out to dinner.
I dont know another soul who eats this flavor of pudding, but when it comes to quirky eats, Im certainly not alone. When I started quizzing otherwise-mindful eaters on what they really ate when they were by themselves, the variety—and loopy inventiveness—was impressive.
Cornflakes with chocolate milk. Fried-bologna sandwiches on white bread slathered with mayonnaise. (This, from someone who goes to the gym seven days a week.) Vanilla ice cream topped with globs of microwaved creamy peanut butter. Canned crescent rolls lacquered with spray butter, cinnamon and sugar, and a pinch of nutmeg (“like a bad cinnamon roll,” says its proud creator).
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Along with sometimes-unorthodox combos, the allure is in eating them solo. Becca, a 28-year-old book editor and gourmet cook, likes to whip up macaroni and cheese (“the especially gross kind with the cheese in the foil tube”), add two sliced hot dogs, then blanket the whole mixture with ketchup. “Its kind of great to have something that I dont eat with anyone else,” she says.
“Its just like taking a bubble bath or getting a pedicure. The fact that I would never eat it with anyone else is, in and of itself, kind of a treat.”
Often a ritual springs up around the consumption of these foods. Heather, a 37-year-old chef, stashes bags of fun-size candy bars in her front closet and quickly tiptoes over to grab a few when all is quiet. “Ill buy a bag for my two sons, and then theyll forget about it,” she says. “Many, many times Ive gone through a fun bag without my husband and kids knowing.”
Meanwhile, Joelle, 41, a childrens-book author who is too embarrassed to use her real name, makes a stealth journey to her freezer. “I love oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookie dough—not the cookies, just the dough,” she says.
“I keep it buried in the freezer and cut off a hunk to gnaw on when everyone is in bed. I guess its a combination of the crunch of brown sugar in butter and the ‘reward feeling, like Im licking the bowl.”
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Everyone does it
And while this sort of craftiness may trigger guilt, it shouldnt, says Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.
“Its very common to eat differently in private. Everybodys doing it, but nobody realizes that everybodys doing the same thing!” she laughs. “But theres so much guilt and shame built around food. And I think that explains a lot about why this so often occurs in private.”
Why do these treats beckon? Many are holdovers from childhood and conjure up fond memories of home, Dr. May says. Fare like canned cinnamon rolls are particularly alluring for those of us who were raised several decades ago. “That was the cake-mix generation, the processed-food generation, so we associate a lot of those foods with enjoyment, or Mom, or Grandma,” she explains.
In other cases, its a matter of rebellion. A friend Ill call Briana, a 32-year-old film executive, always keeps a supply of peanut butter–and-cheese crackers, that vending-machine staple with crackers the color of a safety cone.
“These things are also proudly artificial and processed, so theyre a good affront to the caution I use with most other eating,” she says. “Im still eating them now because the taste evokes the memory of total abandon in eating that I dont feel as an adult, having learned how bad certain things are. It just feels good to relinquish control.”
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But, by far, the most common rationale is that these foods are a reward after a grueling day. As it happens, the payoff is both emotional and physical, says Julia Ross, nutritional psychologist and author of The Diet Cure.
“Theres a biochemical comfort chemistry that certain foods elicit,” she says. “Theyre well-known to stimulate a release of endorphins, these powerful pleasure chemicals that are thousands of times stronger than heroin. And the act of sneaking, she says, provides an extra biochemical boost: “Whenever you do something risky, you get a little of the stress response going, and that little cocktail of hormones includes an endorphin release, too.”
So the big question is: are these indulgences harmful? Not really, says Mitzi Dulan, RD, co-author of The All-Pro Diet. Even so, Dr. May adds, its helpful to realize that surreptitious snacking may give us a false sense of control. “The thinking is, ‘If I only do it in private, I can control it better, it cant occur in public so it cant happen all the time,” she says. “And the danger is that it actually has the opposite effect. Because its illegitimate, it tends to be excessive and fast and not nearly as satisfying as you expected it to be.”
Instead, Dr. May recommends that we rid ourselves of the belief that certain foods are “bad.” “That gives those foods more power over us,” she says. As for how many servings of cornflakes with chocolate milk is too much, it depends on the person, notes Suzanne Havala Hobbs, RD, a clinical associate professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
If you regularly hit the gym and otherwise eat well, an ice-cream-and-hot-peanut-butter extravaganza every couple of weeks is perfectly OK.
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No more guilt!
Even Hobbs is not above a little secret snacking. This past Halloween, she heard her husband and son chuckling about something in the kitchen. “Turns out, they had the kitchen wastebasket and were counting the mini-candy-bar wrappers,” she says. “They asked me to guess how many fun-size candy bars Id eaten. My guess came in at half the actual number.”
If a professor of health policy can come clean about her secret indulgences, so can we all. Dr. May agrees wholeheartedly.
“I tell people its not about being in control, its about being in charge,” she says. “And being in charge means, ‘If I want pistachio pudding, then I can have pistachio pudding. And I can have it in public, actually. This is what I choose to eat.”
And so my hidden vice is out. I say it loud and proud: I like lumpy, nut-flecked, overly sweet, light-green pudding. OK, maybe Im not quite proud—but at least Im not embarrassed anymore. Baby steps.