Sticking Points: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964, by Roald Dahl.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971, Directed by Mel Stuart; Starring Gene Wilder.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005, Directed by Tim Burton; Starring Johnny Depp.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Pop-Up Book, by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, 2011.

When I was six years old, I had a babysitter who read us Roald Dahl each time she spent bedtime with us.  We started with The BFG and moved on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I remember clearly that when we finished the book, she rented the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and brought a bar of Hershey’s chocolate to share. I was greedy with the chocolate—I remember thinking, or maybe even saying, only one bar?  It seemed so paltry compared to the wonders coming alive on the screen, but I now think I may have been missing the point.

Now a regular babysitter myself, I’ve started reading The BFG with one family, and with a two-year-old, yesterday, I had the chance to read aloud the pop-up version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  A condensed version of Dahl’s story, it simplified the complex and, at times, dark narrative for me and got me re-thinking the story as a parable about sins, and since the issue at hand is chocolate and candy, it appeared further that this book could be read as a fable about how to treat sugar and sweets.

My own six-year-old enjoyment of this story demonstrates the way it encapsulates the magic and excitement of sweets in the childhood imagination, and I think our sustained love and recent remaking of the movie suggests the larger cultural imagination in which it resonates.  Oh, to be let loose in Wonka’s chocolate waterfall room, madly picking sugary grasses and flowers!  Even the adult chaperones love it: this is evidence enough of how none of us are exempt from the allure of pure sweetness.  Where would you run first?  What would you eat?  The Golden-ticket winners, apart from Charlie, are much like many Americans and their children, as well as other Western dieters, reaching for sweets constantly, and without much reverence or self-control.  I think Charlie, and perhaps Willy Wonka himself, offer an alternative to this widespread model, in their relationship to the chocolate: for Charlie, a bar of chocolate is a truly rare, special, rich and filling treat, and for Wonka, it is a pure artistic creation, holding great power, danger, and magic.

As we pass through the factory gates with Golden Ticket in hand, taking in the mouth-wateringly chocolatey aroma, we may crave an indulgence of sweets of Gloopian proportions, the second we are given the chance.  Yet upon further reflection, the story provoked quite a different response in me.  In fact, I wonder whether children are ever afraid to eat sweets after seeing/reading it, with Veruca tossed out as a bad nut (and in the first movie, as a spoiled rotten egg), Augustus swallowed by the chocolate river and sucked up a tube, Mike, miniscule, diminished by television, and Violet rolled away as a blueberry to have the juice squeezed out of her.  I met an Italian man in Spain that reminded me so much of Gene Wilder’s Wonka that I had to tell him, and he wasn’t pleased: “that movie scared me as a child,” he said.  I remember the dark mood of certain scenes very vividly, as well, and though the second version is milder in some ways, Johnny Depp’s interpretation of his character was, to me, even creepier.  These dark corners of the bright factory are laden with what I now think has much to say to adults making food choices for themselves and their kids.

The Golden Ticket-winning children that succumb to the factory’s hazardous temptations can be likened to several of the Seven Deadly Sins.  It’s easy to see that Augustus Gloop embodies gluttony, and Mike Teavee sloth, as they do nothing but eat and watch TV, respectively.  The spoiled Veruca Salt clearly represents greed, and although she’s undeniably awful as well, it was hard for me to pinpoint which of the seven I’d assign to Violet Beauregarde.  Once I made this connection, it was easy to find other book/movie reviewers that had already developed the idea, and one of them, Mark Stokes,* thought Violet=pride.  Ah, yes, with her incessant talk about herself and her even more incessant gum-chewing.  An anonymous commenter on his blog, with whom I don’t quite agree, said that Charlie could be compared to the sin of envy, because he is so poor and wants more for himself.  Even when the other children win the tickets, Charlie and his family recognize and comment on how awful they are, rather than simply envying them, and find that in many of the cases, (such as Veruca’s father setting his factory workers to shelling candy bars in search of a ticket), their means of winning are corrupt and not admirable at all; there’s even one that turns out to be a fraud, opening the door for Charlie to find the last, true ticket.  It’s not that Charlie wants their tickets, but wants to find his own, in his own way, as he eventually does.

In his austere life, in poverty, up until the end of the story, I think Charlie is the virtuous counterpoint to the other children, modeling the Christian virtues (i.e. charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility), in his patient and humble obtainment of the ticket in to the factory (he finds a fifty-pence piece on the ground, buys one chocolate bar, and, at least at first, vows to give the rest to his mother.)  Stokes even says the chocolate plays “a sacramental role,” for Charlie, particularly in the scene where he shares his one birthday bar with his parents and four grandparents, though he himself “clearly deserves” it.  Not all of the deadly sins and heavenly virtues are relevant to this story (i.e. temperance, chastity, lust, and wrath—though how far from wrathful are Wonka and the Oompa Loompas? and how far from lust is the children’s approach to candy?), but that’s because it’s a children’s story.  It illustrates so fully how sweets are the vices we designate to children, (helping them practice craving and habituation), and the problematic ways their parents contribute to forming bad habits with these seemingly innocuous drugs.  Not to mention the illustrations of the idea that they actually can come to harm if they have access to them too much, with each of the horrible children meeting equally horrible fates, in their feverish pursuits of Wonka’s wonders, though they all make it home safely in the end.  Stokes says that Depp’s Wonka “can be seen as a God-like figure who opposes (and punishes) the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).”  If we accepted that, I wonder if Charlie can be seen as the predestined owner of the factory, embodying the Protestant work ethic and other virtues as a visible sign of grace.

The factory and its resplendent wonders is bestowed to Charlie because he is able to regard its candy treats with true reverence.  He appreciates them, he isn’t greedy, prideful, or gluttonous with what Willy Wonka offers to him, refusing to capitalize on his trip inside factory for his own gain, (the anonymous commenter about envy says he finds his redemption when he gives back the gobstopper—in the movie—this subplot isn’t in the book, rather than reveal its secrets to Wonka’s competitors).  It’s pure poetic justice when the Bucket family moves to the factory forever, after living so near to it and smelling its delicious chocolate without being able to eat any, day after day, year after year.  Charlie eats his vegetables: his cabbage and cabbage soup for all those days and years, and so, when he wins the factory, it reads like a long-awaited, well-earned dessert.

I give Dahl a lot of credit for the way he fed the child imagination, and my babysitter, Margaret, a lot of credit for handing me the Golden Ticket into his world.  Stokes reminds me that Roald Dahl was a Catholic school boy, a taste-tester for Cadbury, and later an atheist.  Re-visiting this book raises further questions for me about the connections between eating, the Protestant work ethic, and morality in our collective regard, like what it means to consider gluttony sinful; what the designation of good and “bad for you,” foods has done for our relationship to sugar, and mine in particular.  And although this story still entices me with the power of chocolate, it kind of leaves me wanting some cabbage soup, saving the candy for those rare moments when I am truly able to appreciate it.

*“Reviews by Mark Stokes,” blog link: (


Toxic Fish Tank

“Think of your body as a fish tank.  Imagine your cells and organ systems as the fish, bathed in fluids (including blood) that transport food and remove wastes.  Then suppose I back up a car and put the tailpipe up against the air intake filter that supplies oxygen to the tank.  The water becomes filled with carbon monoxide, making it acidic.  Then I throw in too much food, or the wrong kind of food, and the fish are unable to consume or digest it all, so it starts to decompose.  Toxic acid wastes and chemicals build up as the food breaks down, making the water still more acidic.  How long before the fish are goners?”

—From The ph Miracle by Robert and Shelly Young

via Meghan, the food guru

Another thing my guru taught me about was the ionic footbath.  A healing treatment, this contraption ionizes water and pull toxins from your body out through your feet.  Reminding myself that a treat doesn’t have to be sweet, I went to get one as a birthday gift to my body.

The experience was both fascinating and disgusting because the water turns different colors depending on what toxins are being released from the body.  The person conducting it let me know that usually the water turns orange first as toxins are released from the joints.  My water turned bright orange and deepened with red flecks that apparently represent release from the blood, which I learned often accompany the orange where there is pain.  The joint pain I’d been dealing with has significantly diminished in the week since I did it, and I felt energized afterward.  When we eat the wrong kind of food or do not digest it properly, the toxins collect first in the joints.  Watching the orange toxin water spin down the drain, I had to wonder, how much of this built up because of sugar?

Week #5: My First Sugar-Free Birthday

In just a month’s time, I went from complaining about not eating cake at a birthday party for the first time ever, (See: Week# 2), to hosting my own very first sugar-free birthday party.  In a pathetic breakdown days before, I cried, Are birthdays even fun without sugar?

Yes, very.

I had cake there and I ate it, too.   With a jar of agave nectar and a bucket of cocoa powder, you’d never even guess it was refined-sugar-free.  With the cookies I made, (also agave-sweetened, and with barley-malt-sweetened chocolate chips) it was more obvious, but they passed as a decent substitute.

To my surprise, just a single serving of cake and Coconut Bliss had me feeling crazy sugar-thrilled and positively hung over the next day (unless I was hung over from drinking—it was strictly a tea party so the herbal variations did get pretty wild).

But to my greater surprise and delight, these treats weren’t even the sweetest part of my birthday.  Post both sugar high and low, the sweetness that has stayed with me is that I have such amazing, loving, incredibly thoughtful friends.

Many of them even brought me sugar-free gifts in support of this mission, like cacao coconut butter, and an adorable lunchbox in which to bring my own food to work, so that I don’t succumb to another mean, nasty cookie bully; honey sticks, a can of carob powder, and, get this, Meghan, my aforementioned food guru, made me a book containing brilliant insights from her favorite nutrition writers! (Excerpt to follow).

I’m truly grateful to love and live with this community of such unbelievably sweet people, and to call them my friends.


Graphic from The New York Times Magazine article, “Is Sugar Toxic?” (See: Sticking Points)


Sticking Points: Food Rules

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

by Michael Pollan

New York, London: Penguin Group, 2009.

“Populations that eat a so-called Western diet—generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer… The arguments in nutritional science are not about this well-established link; rather, they are all about identifying the culprit nutrient in the western diet that might be responsible for chronic diseases… The point is that, as eaters (if not as scientists), we know all we need to know to act: This diet, for whatever reason, is the problem,” (xii).

“…there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diets.  Except, that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us now are eating.  What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!” (xiii)

“So we ignore the elephant in the room and focus instead of good and evil nutrients, the identities of which seem to change with every new study.  But for the Nutritional Industrial Complex this uncertainty is not necessarily a problem, because confusion too is good business…” (xv)

Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650—very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you? I think I’ll wait awhile.” (xi)

“… there are other sources of wisdom in the world and other vocabularies in which to talk intelligently about food.  Human beings ate well and kept themselves healthy for millennia before nutritional science cam along to tell us how to do it; it is entirely possible to eat healthily without knowing what an antioxidant is… not surprisingly, these two different vocabularies, or ways of knowing, often come to the same conclusion (as when scientists recently confirmed that the traditional practice of eating tomatoes with olive oil is good for you, because the lycopene in the tomatoes is soluble in oil, making it easier for your body to absorb),” (xvi-xvii).

“Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed to get us to buy and eat  more by pushing our evolutionary buttons—our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt.  These tastes are difficult to find in nature but cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy, with the result that food processing induces us to consume much more of these rarities than is good for us,” (8).

“# 10: Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not,” (23).  Uh-oh, this doesn’t bode well for my idealized ice cream substitutes.

“Vegetarians are notably healthier than carnivores, and they live longer,” (51).  Hmm… the new omnivore’s dilemma.

“Freezing does not significantly diminish the nutritional value of produce,” (63).  Never knew this.

“#33: Eat some foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi.  Many traditional cultures swear by the health benefits of fermented foods—foods that have been transformed by live microorganisms, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kimchi, and sourdough bread.  These foods can be a good source of vitamin B12, an essential nutrient you can’t get from plants.  (B12 is produced by animals and bacteria).  Many fermented foods also contain probiotics—beneficial bacteria that research suggests improve the function of the digestive and immune systems and, according to some studies, help reduce allergic reactions and inflammation,” (73).  I’ve taken a B12 supplement for years, works wonders with PMS for one thing; never knew it didn’t come from any plants.

“#39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself… —chances are good it won’t be every day,” (85).  And eh-hem, note to self: stop relying on Body Café to provide you with easy sugar-free sweets.

“Cultures that took corn from Latin America without the beans or the lime wound up with serious nutritional deficiencies…” (90) Prelude to the next book I’m reading, a colonial history of sugar.

“The prophet Muhammad described, a full belly as one that contained 1/3 food and 1/3 liquid—and 1/3 air, i.e. nothing,” (103).  I think Pollan misses the point on this one.  Air is not nothing: we don’t get enough oxygen.  I like thinking about this balance between breathing, drinking water, and eating.

“…Again the French may have something to teach us.  To say ‘I’m hungry ‘ in French you say ‘J’ai faim’—’I have hunger’—and when you are finished, you do not say that you are full, but ‘Je n’ai plus faim’—’I have no more hunger.’  That’s a completely different way of thinking about satiety.  So: Ask yourself not, Am I full, but Is my hunger gone?  That moment will arrive several bites sooner,” (104).  It occurs to me that the construction is similar in Spanish, although you would say I’m full, you say I have hunger or thirst, Tengo hambre/sed.  Also, surprise, surprise, Italian is no help.  The question is always, do you want to eat something, whether you’re hungry or not.  Le vorrebbe mangiare qualcosa?

“We eat out of boredom, for entertainment, to comfort or reward ourselves… If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not hungry.  Food is a costly antidepressant,” (105).

“Most of us allow external, and usually visual cues to determine how much we eat.  The larger the portion, for example, the more we eat: the bigger the container, the more we pour,” (107).  Listening to those gut feelings.

‘After lunch, sleep awhile; after dinner, walk a mile.’ (119)

“When eating somewhere other than at a table, stick to fruits and vegetables,” (127).  Or nuts, he adds, on another page.  A good rule to follow.


“an Indian proverb…’Drink your food, chew your drink.’

Another strategy, encoded in a table manner that’s been all but forgotten: ‘Put down your fork between bites.”  (109)

The banquet is in the first bite.’ (111)

Week #4: The cookie was taunting me and I just had to shut it up

I had a breakdown at work in which I ate two cookies (re: I cheated and had refined sugar on purpose for the first time since I gave it up).  It was a setup: I was stressed, hungry, tired, staying up all night—seeking quick energy, and unprepared with healthy alternatives.  The cookie was taunting me.  I just had to shut it up.  The first one tasted good.  The second didn’t.  I expected this to begin a huge downward spiral, to go on a total binge from which I wouldn’t recover.  This did not happen.  What did happen was this: I felt my heart racing and then I fell asleep.  I wished I could brush my teeth; it didn’t sit well with me as I stayed up all night.  I had some peanut butter toast and finally felt better.  I am rather amazed.  Two cookies in one month?! Compared to what I was doing before.  Two cookies and I stopped?!   A mini-victory and an unexpected affirmation of this little sugar-free mission.

 As you’ve probably noticed, work is where the temptation to eat sugar is the greatest.  This is for a few reasons: as I’ve said, it’s stressful, as I’ve mentioned, there is a lot of sugar around, and as I haven’t explicitly pointed out, it’s a night shift.  I’ve actually developed some sympathy for myself for the way I was eating/snacking before, particularly during those nights, because my biorhythms are so confused at this point, and have been ever since I started keeping this schedule.  It feels wrong to eat real meals late at night, so I would just turn to quick-energy sweets, even more than I usually do.  This is why it has been an important discovery for me that eating more real food is actually better at helping me sustain my energy during the night and giving me the nutrients I’m not eating as I sleep through regular mealtimes the next day.

Another relevant fact here that I haven’t explicitly acknowledged is that I am, and have been for ten years now, a strict vegetarian.  Part of why I decided to give sugar up is that for awhile now I have been aware that perhaps my sugar cravings are related to my vegetarianism and consequent deficiency of certain nutrients, like amino acids and proteins.  The author of Get the Sugar Out says it. (See: Sticking Points).  I heard a talk at Kripalu three years ago from a nutritionist that advocated for a largely plant-based diet supplemented by a small amount of fish protein.  This inspired me to try, for a brief while, eating fish.  I couldn’t do it.  I’m contemplating taking a fish oil supplement.  But, in any case, cutting out sugar forces me, as I said, to look more closely at my nutrition and to focus on eating good proteins everyday.  I do think it helps with the cravings.  I’ve also noticed I gave myself, in anticipating this, a bit too much credit for craving sugar constantly, where an embarrassing amount of the sugar I consumed was just because it was there.  I wasn’t used to saying no, and didn’t want to.

I visited with a college friend this week and said, “Hey guess, what? I did something with my diet that you will never believe: I gave up sugar.”  He said, “Well, it was probably that or early-onset diabetes, right?”

(Owch.) Sad, but true.

What followed was a discussion in which everyone in the room admitted that during the time they were vegetarian, they craved sugar and carbohydrates all the time.  It’s becoming undeniably clear to me that there’s a connection here.

And that I’ve been avoiding it.  It goes back, in part, to resisting that body image pressure.  I’d already long-wanted permission from my parents to be vegetarian when they finally granted it as a sort of birthday gift when I turned 14.  This put an end to the years of fights at the dinner table over my distaste for meat.  But they, along with my pediatrician and eighth-grade English teacher, respectively, sat me down with the concern that this new vegetarianism would be a gateway to cutting out other foods, and developing an eating disorder.  I certainly was at-risk for one.  I was only just moving out of a phase that I saw nearly all my female peers go through at that age, of being “weird about food,” concerned about my appearance and weight, stealing my mom’s Slim Fast shakes, and not eating regularly in hopes of being thinner.  Ultimately, the commitment to a vegetarian diet made me feel more food-positive overall, and I’ve never gone back to that dangerous phase.  I assured everyone, I won’t stop eating.  And I didn’t.  Especially not sugar and sweets.

Week #3: What the sugar has been covering up

Something terrible happens at work.  I don’t resort to sugar when I come home from this bad night, but I’m aware that it’s a moment where I usually would.  I am enraged and overcome with sadness.  I am totally adrift with this emotion, raw with it.  I don’t know what to do with myself or how to calm myself down, I feel without resource.  I realize: What the sugar has been covering up is all this anger.

Perhaps I can no longer swallow this anger.  And perhaps I can no longer be sweet.  Stripping back the sugar-coating.

Sticking Points: Get the Sugar Out!

Get the Sugar Out: 501 Simple Ways to Cut the Sugar Out of Any Diet, 2nd ed.

by Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., C.N.S.

New York: Crown Publishing, 1996; 2008.

Here are a few things that stuck with me from this first primer on nutritional research about sugar and ideas to help me live without it.

No wonder I can eat SO much candy:

By replacing sugar with high fructose corn syrup, you can override your body’s natural ability to feel full, so you eat more.  Without this type of signal you don’t know when to stop eating.  Now that is downright scary,” (7).

“Your body is not designed for high levels of refined fructose,” (23).

“When you eat refined simple sugars, such as table sugar, candy, cookies, or other sugar-laden foods, your blood sugar levels rise very quickly.  Your pancreas responds by releasing a lot of insulin.  That’s not good.  High insulin levels are one of the biggest risk factors and promoters of breast cancer…excess sugar fuels the cancer fire in areas beyond breast tissue,” (20).

“Though diabetes is caused by high blood sugar, hypoglycemia is low blood sugar, a condition that often precedes the development of adult-onset diabetes.  In hypoglycemia, the pancreas reacts to excess processed carbohydrates in the diet by sending out so much insulin that blood sugar drops too low, resulting in fatigue, lack of concentration, anxiety, mood swings, and irritability.  Several health professionals, such as research psychologist Alexander Schauss, Ph.D., believe that alcoholics and drug addicts start out as hypoglycemics first and that hypoglycemia can also lead to criminal activity.  Since almost all Americans eat too much sugar, many nutritionists think that most Americans are on an almost certain collision course with hypoglycemia,” (21).

“Sugar is a known immunosuppressant,” (25).

Understatement of the century:

“If you experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, moodiness, depression, irritability, and fatigue, you most certainly are addicted to sugar, just as others are addicted to coffee or alcohol.  Like alcoholics, who need to avoid alcohol, you also need to eliminate all forms of sugar in your diet, at least until your body chemistry improves,” (44).

“If you can’t go long without eating sugary foods, you probably have a physical dependence on sugar to give you the quick energy your body is lacking.  Switch to eating five or six small, protein-rich meals a day.  This will better balance your blood sugar and give you more long-term energy so you’re less apt to grab for the sweets,” (45).

“If you crave sugar or even complex carbohydrates, that’s almost always a sign that you’re not getting enough protein,” (45).

Hmmm…“If you’re a vegetarian, you might want to consider having your amino acid levels tested.  Plasma and urine tests often reveal that vegetarians are deficient in the amino acids lysine, methionine, tryptophan, carnitine, and taurine.  Without sufficient amounts of these amino acids, vegetarians can develop numerous problems, not the least of which are blood sugar imbalances and sugar and carbohydrate cravings,” (46).

A trick that has already helped me: “Chew on a cinnamon stick to help you beat your sweet tooth,” (47).

“Cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves might soon be just what the doctor orders to help regulate blood sugar levels.  Test-tube studies conducted at the USDA’s Vitamin and Mineral Laboratory have shown that these spices triple insulin’s ability to metabolize sugar and remove it from the blood.  To give your body extra help maintaining blood sugar balance, add these spices to foods and drinks whenever possible,” (52).

Somewhat of a revelation for me and a new practice: “A treat doesn’t have to be sweet,” (50).