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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