Author: Ashley Wentworth, M.S., RD
It’s that time of year again—when parents are getting nervous about having all of the Halloween treats and candy around. Let’s explore what makes this scary for us.
Isn’t Sugar Bad for Our Kids?
Yes, there are studies that link excessive sugar intake to chronic health conditions and nutrient deficiencies in children. But the link isn’t as clear as we’d like it to be. For example, in a 2017 study in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, researchers state, “Nutrition studies are inherently challenging because humans have complex activities, diets, and metabolism. In attempts to study a single nutrient such as sugar, it is impossible to isolate its effects completely, especially with the known limitations in self-reported diet data from children/parents and the short duration feasible with feeding studies.”
In other words, it’s hard to tell what exact side-effects are from just the sugar and what is due to other compounds in food or from one’s biology or activity. It’s also difficult to say how much sugar is too much sugar for every person and make a recommendation for that across the board.
This is because sugar is part of the carbohydrate food group. Carbohydrates—or “carbs”—are often villainized in the media. But carbs aren’t bad—and in fact, are necessary for good health.
When we eat carbohydrates they are broken down into a form of sugar called glucose—and glucose is the body's preferred source of energy or fuel. This means our bodies primarily run on carbohydrates—and use carbs most efficiently as fuel compared to other forms of fuel.
Eating high sugar foods can affect blood sugar levels and create a cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes in children and adults. This can look like irritability, moodiness, and extra energy or hyperactivity. Eating an excess of sugar can also lead to eating less nutrient dense foods.
It is important for growing bodies to have adequate nutrition from all nutrients: vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It is also important for children and adults to be able to enjoy their food and eat foods that are fun, too.
Risks of Restriction
While our first instinct as parents is to take the Halloween candy and hide it (after we’ve taken our own bounty of favorites from the bag), the results of restriction on our food choices and behaviors can be scarier than the perceived risks of eating too much sugar.
When we typically restrict something—whether we’re restricting from ourselves or the restriction is from an outside source—it makes that thing much more fun, appealing, and powerful to us. The rebellious child comes out. We all want to have what we’ve been told we can’t have. And it’s that pull to do something we have been told not to do.
This type of behavior is likely based in the reactance theory in psychology. According to a 2015 study in Frontiers in Psychology, psychological reactance is the reaction that occurs when we feel our freedom of choice is threatened.
Food restriction in our minds has the same effect and triggers reactance behavior. When you perceive that candy is “bad” and actively try to restrict it, your motivation increases to eat it. For example, we tend to crave the things that are “off limits” when we’re dieting.
Our biology also works very hard to keep us from starving from food restriction. When your body senses food restriction of any kind, it tends to ignite a domino effect of reactions inside your brain and body, including increasing thoughts of food and hunger signals. This is your body’s way of protecting you from starvation. It’s trying to drive you to go find food.
Actively restricting foods or food groups, as well as mental restriction, can lead to overeating, binge eating, disordered eating behaviors, and eating disorders.
Why Halloween Candy Is Not the Devil
Sweet treats, including Halloween candy, can fit into nutritious eating. Sweets do not cancel-out fruits and vegetables. Nutrition is about your patterns of eating over time - the big picture. It’s also about eating a variety of foods and paying attention to your body signals around hunger, fullness, and preferences.
Allow children to trust their hunger signals. Remind them of previous experiences with candy - like if they ate too much and had a bellyache. Ultimately, it should be their decision on how much to have. Your job as their parent is to offer a variety of food options that includes nutritious choices from all the foods groups, as well as what I like to call fun or play food. Teach them how food works in their bodies—like when we eat just sugar and simple carbohydrates, we’re going to be moodier and have less energy in the long run. And teach them what hunger and fullness might feel like in their bodies. It might be hard at first but they will be able to learn when they’ve had enough food and will figure out what foods work best for their bodies..
We do not restrict sweet treats at our house. We have something sweet most days. Because we are not restricting these foods, my daughter is able to enjoy them and learn how much is satisfying to her. She is able to stop eating when she has had enough and does not feel like she needs to eat more—because it’s readily available.
Ideas to Handle Halloween Candy
- Include meals with a variety of food groups in addition to candy.
- Include fun foods as part of meals—this makes all of the foods feel the same, not that some are more exciting or valued as others.
- Include fun foods regularly—this will make them normal and not as exciting.
- Keep it hidden or in sight, that part is up to you. We typically leave ours out for a few days and then put it in a cupboard. If my daughter thinks to ask for it she can have some. Leaving it out also signifies that they can have some whenever which can help make it less appealing over time.
- The more anxious you are about the candy, the more kids will pick up on that and think you’re going to take it away. This may lead to them eating more.
Keep the big picture in mind. Enjoying sweet treats and fun foods is not going to make or break their health or nutrition!