Like second-hand smoke, which you end up inhaling because someone close by lit up, secondary eating is when you eat food because someone close by is eating it, sharing it, or pressuring you to indulge. (The food itself is sometimes called second-hand junk food.) Secondary eating can also be the food you eat on your own outside of regular meals, out of habit, not out of hunger, and usually while you're doing something else—watching TV, working, driving.

In short, it's a snack. Secondary eating is any eating you do outside of regular meal times. The problem, it's often fast food, processed food or junk food so, in addition to unnecessary calories, you may be eating foods with little to no nutritional value.

Signs That Secondary Eating Is Out of Control

The calorie tally of this eating pattern can be eye-opening. The Minnesota Section of the Institute of Food Technologists found a person consumed an average 580 calories in snacks each day.

These behaviors signal secondary eating:

  • Eating when you're distracted, or eating as a distraction
  • Eating when you're not even hungry, but rather because you are bored, sad, lonely, or angry
  • Eating when you're happy and just want to reward yourself

Candy that comes into the office, chips and dips at parties, your friend's movie popcorn, cupcakes and cake pops sold to raise money at your child's school, the snacks you eat out of habit while watching television, doing homework, driving in your car, or taking a break from the computer. The list of times you encounter second-hand calories can be endless.

Why We Succumb to Secondary Eating and What You Can Do About It

Television, magazine, and online advertising help promote second-hand eating by mere suggestion. One excellent rule to follow when snacking is to never eat any food you've seen advertised. That's because advertisements generally promote processed foods. While not all advertised foods are junk food, it's rare to see whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, or grains in commercials and ads, unless they're in the background or being used as props to insinuate healthfulness in a processed food.

The best defense against temptation, and one way to break unhealthy eating habits, is to always have healthier food on hand and ready to eat.  It may not be enough to keep carrots in the crisper, though. You need to have cut-up carrots that are washed and ready to dip into hummus or garlic-infused yogurt at the ready.

Other ideas: If you're going to a party, volunteer to bring a platter of prepared veggies and a pesto dip, or an assortment of cut-up fresh fruits and nuts, so you know there will be something healthier than chips to nibble on. (And then make a point of standing or sitting by your own platter, not by the chip bowl!) When you're making a contribution to the school bake sale, consider banana bread instead of brownies.