Willy Wonka and the chocolate fantasy.

A famous actress was quoted in the newspaper regarding a role that required her to gain weight. Something about the quote struck me as odd. To paraphrase, she said, “Sure, it sounds great to gain weight. You can indulge all your fantasies of endless chocolate, unlimited pasta and garlic bread…but after a while your blood glucose goes crazy, you’re all over the place, and it doesn’t feel good.”

At first blush, the quote makes sense. It’s true; if you’re eating too much for your needs, or a diet nutritionally unbalanced for your needs, it’s not going to feel good — it’s going to feel gross. Fair enough. But the thing that stuck in my craw was the idea of someone even having fantasies about unlimited chocolate and pasta and garlic bread in the first place.

Now, food fantasies probably won’t sound weird to most people, because most people — and forgive me if this sounds mean — live with a slightly eating-disordered ideation about food, thanks to our culture. But in my experience, having these fantasies, and looking forward to any ‘excuse’ to indulge in them, is highly dysfunctional.

The fact is, a person who restricts their food intake, especially due to weight concerns (or the myriad related ‘health concerns’ that are just an attempted sublimation of the desire to lose weight, look better, gain social privilege, etc.) will have food fantasies. As the food restriction gets more severe, the fantasies get wilder, and the food behaviours more erratic. Remember the details from the Ancel Keys study, “The Biology of Human Starvation.” Recall the food compulsions reported among anorectic patients, people who are supposedly ‘not hungry’ (I assure you, they are, and they obsess about food more than they would if they actually ate it.) Think of the hot-fudge-sundae fantasies that most likely drifted through your dreams last time you were on a diet; craving pasta and potatoes during Atkins’; longing for cream sauces and marbled steaks on Pritikin.

Maybe it’s not enough to do damage, the type of moderate-to-mild food restriction that goes on commonly in the culture, prompting these harmless-sounding, Willy-Wonkaesque food fantasies. Maybe not. But maybe it is.

To divert for a moment, let’s consider the Willy Wonka river-of-chocolate, candy-growing-on-trees fantasy. Who is this designed to appeal to? Children.
Because their food intake is restricted? Well, perhaps in some cases, but I think the larger reason why the Willy Wonka fantasy appeals to children is that children are at their most metabolically active. They are growing; they have huge energy and nutritional requirements by unit body mass, much larger than adults, and in such a state, it’s natural that someone would fantasize about food, crave candy and sugary treats, adore birthday cake and cookies and, well, to do all the funny things with food (and particularly, sweets) that children are renowned for. Much the same goes for pregnant women, who are nourishing a rapidly-growing bundle of cells with their own bodies.

But is it normal for most adults — who should be in a metabolically stable state — to have these types of longings and fantasies and cravings? No. It is a sign that something could be wrong with your food intake and your nutritional status, or even out-of-whack metabolically, hormonally. Maybe nothing severely wrong, not yet, but definitely trending in that direction, and definitely taking away from your quality of life — even if it’s ‘just’ from your emotional well-being. The plain fact is, if you’re not getting enough to eat, it will eventually catch up with you. You will feel tired, hungry, or irritable. You will be distracted by food fantasies and maybe by the restrictive food rules you impose on yourself. You won’t be able to enjoy social meals as much. Your quality of life will suffer, and your performance in all areas of your life will suffer.

Any why infantilize yourself like that? Why subvert your real goals, your real life, to dream about food all day long? One of the first areas where a child learns to exert control is in eating. It is an area fundamental to the awakening of human autonomy. We are big boys and girls now; we get to choose what to eat, and how much of it.

In my experience, when you do two things — 1) stop food restriction, and mentally grant yourself permission to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, however much you want — and 2) pay attention to how eating makes your body react, so that you can balance short-term pleasure with longer-term well-being, so that you are nourished both physically and mentally — when you do these things (and they are not easy, not as simple as they sound, and can take years of effort), the food fantasies will end.

Because do you find yourself fantasizing about breathing air and drinking water on a daily basis? No? Enough said.

P.S. To bring this full-circle: when looking up “The Biology of Human Starvation” on Google Books, the first ad on the side of the results page said “How celebs stay thin.” Terribly apt.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted June 4, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    I eat enough but I still have food fantasies. Of course that’s probably because nobody in my home will eat any of my all-time favorite foods. I dream of eggplants, long for salmon, and fantasize about Brussels sprouts.

    Then again, I think about them less when I have the opportunity to eat whatever I like, even if I don’t indulge in those particular treats.

    Because of this, I’ve started making these things for lunch once in a while when I’m only feeding me. I’ve also taken to making dinner at a friends’ house now and again, and leaving my husband and brother to fend for themselves. They’re big boys. They know where the stove is.

    It’s done wonders. What’s more, I actually do get to eat eggplant once in a while now.

  2. Nazira
    Posted June 4, 2009 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    As a recovering anorexic/bulimic when I first started eating again (well as in more than 250 cal. a day) I ate like 3 muffins breakfast, a salad and two bowls of chips and a piece of fruit for lunch, and three cups of mac n cheese plus 2 variables for dinner on average. Im sure to y’all normal eaters that sounds normal but for me it seems like a banquet times 10 and eating 1800 more calories a day than usual it really was. But once I finally felt full like 2 weeks later (and to my dismay 15 pounds heavier I might add) I was letting myself figuratively and sometimes literally eat whatever I wanted. And suddenly most of my cravings just vanished. I wasn’t thinking about food or ways to avoid it all day. I could concentrate on the more important. I have since relapsed a couple times recovery is a rocky road starving and purging complete with 2 hr cardio workout extraoirdonaire package. But every morning I log on to the fatosphere and try again and think about all the beautiful wonderful women on it and try to forget that my mom says “youre too fat to be anorexic etc you overweight lazy slob” (note I was at the time 5’9 and 134 lbs-10 pounds above the cusp of being underweight) She said the comment was made because I was looking flabby and Im like well be honest if I was overweight then now am I obese at (same height) 150 pounds? Look I say clutching my stomach fat you think im repulsive I get it but I cant weigh less healthily. Then she goes into her long yadda yadda on if you only ate healthily and exercise a good amount anyone can maintain easily the best weight for her height.And im like I exercise every day and as for food I do the best I can and guess what-Im still 150 pounds because horror of all horrors-I EAT! But what about the contestants on The Biggest Loser they lose weight she says. Um yeah mom have you ever been on the internet. They only eat fat free jello and celery in minimum while working out 6 hours a day before weigh ins. Is that healthy mom? (I have the urge to go “huh, huh?”) She sits there and says um then changes the subject. So wait its ok in your mind to be anorexic and an exercise bulimic if you are fat I think to myself? I look into her eyes and they say yes thats what I think. Sometimes I wanna go why do you want me to be the same weight as you (134) at 3 inches taller. But oh wait I know because she is anorexic and an exercise bulimic as was her mother her grandmother her grandmothers mother and her grandmothers mothers mother. And it would be such a disapointment if I stopped the family tradition. Well mom thats exactly what im gon’ do.

    PS sorry about getting all dramatic its really hard trying to recover when all your relatives also suffer (on both sides of the family my aunt and cousin on my dads side also are) and think its fine.

  3. Nikki
    Posted June 4, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Ahh, I just posted on another one of your blogs about this! I totally spend all day dreaming about food. At night I have nightmares that I went on a binge and I wake up at 2 in the morning thinking, “Oh thank God it’s okay, I didn’t really eat all that.”

    It’s totally unhealthy, I agree with you. But as someone who used to be a plus size who is now a thinner size, I have to say I like this life better than my life before. I never got attention from guys before, dr’s treated me differently (suggesting exercise for back pain instead of looking for the real problem, a slipped disc), and it was so much harder buying clothes when I was bigger. So life is easier now, but harder, too. I wish there was a way to win, but I don’t know what it is.

  4. Ann
    Posted June 4, 2009 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve really enjoyed your posts so far. You write well and confindently, and your message is, frankly, a relief. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

  5. KellyK
    Posted June 5, 2009 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    :: sends Nikki a hug::

  6. damnsle
    Posted June 5, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I fantasize about food, but it’s usually food that I can’t afford or is in some other way unavailable to me; things like really fine wine and foie gras (I know, I know, but it’s not always inhumane) or expensive artisan cheeses and smoked salmon, really outrageously gourmet chef prepared meals. But regular everyday foods – not so much. At least not since I stopped restricting, purging and over-exercising. I have gained back all the weight I lost (almost 150 lbs) and that is hard, but with the weight has come a certain calmness. I’m not as angry, depressed (well, I’m still depressed but I’m no longer suicidal) and isolated as I was then. And to be honest, in some ways I think I look better being fatter. When I had lost all that weight I had so much extra skin that I kept comparing my self to a candle that had been microwave; It looked like I was half melted and it struck me as disgusting. Now, although considerably fatter than average (I don’t know exactly but I would estimate my weight at around 350 or so) I think I actually look better because my skin no longer looks like it’s trying to creep it’s way off my body. And, no more elaborate food fantasies about daily items.

  7. Posted June 5, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Nazira, my hat is off to you. What you’re doing takes courage, especially in the face of so much family history and lack of support. Keep eating. We’re on your side.

  8. Posted March 25, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I sometimes think wistfully about sushi–there are no sushi restaurants close enough to go to solely for the purpose of eating sushi. :(

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