Halloween can be a spooky time of year. For some people, it’s the ghosts and goblins. For others the scariest part is the temptation of all that leftover candy. Why has Halloween candy, and more specifically sugar, become so demonized? Let’s take a look and then end with a mindful eating exercise to help us approach the holiday with confidence.
🎃 HALLOWEEN TRADITIONS
I grew up in a neighborhood made up of mostly young families where the houses were built quite close together. This was the perfect recipe for back-to-back doorbell ringing and spectacular candy collection. I have such fond memories of trick-or-treating and inviting my friends over to share in the magic.
These days, Halloween candy can stand for so much more, including our stance on sugar in general. For instance, is it okay to offer kids sweets? Should we feel guilty about enjoying desserts during holiday celebrations?
These are just a few of many questions we ask ourselves about sugary foods, and there are no right answers. So, in honor of Halloween and the candy associated with it, let’s delve into the science behind sugar and reflect on whether or not these concerns are legitimate.
This is an important topic to address in detail, and it is longer than our usual posts. Because it is lengthy, I have broken it down into shorter segments. This way, if there’s something specific you’d like to read about, you may jump down to the heading that is most interesting to you.
📚 A QUICK SUGAR REVIEW
Sugar is a carbohydrate. It is a combination of glucose and fructose, and different sugars (like honey versus corn syrup, for example) have different ratios of the two.
Many of the common foods we eat contain sugar – from fruit, sauces and salad dressings, and breads to pastas, sodas, cocktails, and candy. Sugar’s primary function is to provide energy to the body.
🍎 SUGAR IN OUR DIETS
When sugar is eaten within whole foods like in apples, oatmeal, milk, and brown rice, it can provide energy, fiber, fat, protein and a variety of vitamins. Once consumed and broken down to glucose, the body doesn’t know whether this sugar has come from an apple or an apple strudel.
When eating added sugars (called simple sugars, like in sugar-sweetened beverages or candy) that are unaccompanied by a more complex food, digestion and absorption is quicker. We often become hungry again soon after eating because we miss out on beneficial vitamins as well as fiber and fat, which keep us fuller for longer.
🙅♀️ IS EATING SUGAR UNHEALTHY?
For some time now, sugar and candy have been demonized to the point that many of us are conditioned to feel remorseful after eating it. I think it’s worth exploring whether we can strip away some of those guilty feelings surrounding sugar intake.
When my five-year-old asks if candy is healthy, we use this as an opportunity to talk about how different foods can provide us with unique feelings, both physical and emotional.
I find this to be more valuable than replying, “Yes, sugar is unhealthy.” Or “Yes, but we can have it sometimes.” These responses have the potential to produce unnecessary emotions, like anxiety or excitement, around sweets.
Consider this: A child is 242 times more likely to have an eating disorder than they are to develop type 2 diabetes. Given our rigidity around sugar these days, I’m not surprised. Research shows that restricting certain foods in kids’ diets increases non-hunger-related eating as well as requests to secure those foods.
In response, we can promote more normalized eating experiences by giving permission, without caveats, to include sugar or candy in our diets.
ADDRESSING THE 🐘 IN THE ROOM…
Perhaps you’re thinking sugar is bad for us – that it’s a fact, which can’t be argued. But the notion that we become unhealthy if we eat sugar is too simplistic. It doesn’t tell the whole story.
When we label foods as good or bad, it implies that food has morality. If we eat something sweet we are “being bad,” and if we have the willpower to avoid sugar we are “being good.”
I don’t believe that eating or not eating certain foods makes us good or bad people. But unfortunately, in today’s culture that judgment is often heightened depending on who is eating it.
❤️ DOES SUGAR LEAD TO OBESITY, DIABETES & HEART DISEASE?
The links between sugar intake, weight gain, obesity, and chronic illness are complex. The research is clear that being at a higher weight is associated with type 2 diabetes, as are certain dietary patterns. It is unclear exactly why.
But it’s a jump to conclude that things you do or don’t eat causes diabetes.
It is too difficult to isolate sugar (or any other food) as a causative factor in human nutrition studies because humans live in the real world with an infinite number of variables including genetics (most especially genetics), lifestyle, and environment.
Here are interesting statistics to consider:
- Non-obese (BMI <30) individuals who diet are more likely to gain weight.
- People with BMIs of 30-34.9 (classified as obese) have the same risk of death as those with BMI 18.5-24.9 (classified as normal). Those with a BMI <18.5 (classified as underweight) have the greatest health risk.
Yet, in the name of health we continue to deprive ourselves in a quest to shrink our bodies.
The diet industry certainly doesn’t want to deter us from this mission – they grossed nearly $80 billion in 2019 alone. So, consider the possibility that those who stand to gain (and by that I mean profit) may be perpetuating the notion that sugar is to be feared.
👩⚕️ WHAT IF WE ALREADY HAVE DIABETES?
Eat regular meals and snacks during the day to avoid feelings of starvation at inopportune times. This can limit urges to binge on sweets (like Halloween candy!) despite best efforts not to.
As always, check the labels on the back of packages for carb counting, or exchanges, to safely enjoy your favorite sweets. (For Halloween candy you may need to look them up, because fun size candy doesn’t usually have nutrition information on the back label.)
A reminder that if eaten in isolation, hard candies and gummies will be absorbed quickly. This is why they are recommended in cases of hypoglycemia (or very low blood sugar levels). On the other hand, a candy bar with chocolate and nuts contains carbohydrate, fat, and protein and will take longer to digest.
For children with diabetes, the American Diabetes Association has some good tips for trick-or-treating this year. One that I think is especially valuable is to have kids enjoy their haul, so to speak, once they get home and are supervised by parents. I think this is balanced advice that allows kids to enjoy the trick-or-treating experience while also being in a safe environment.
This is also a good approach for kids with food allergies, because caregivers can help monitor which candies are safe to try.
🧐 DOES SUGAR CAUSE CANCER?
Sugar does not cause cancer, nor does it feed cancer cells. In fact, the American Cancer Society posts this openly on their website.
🔢 SO HOW MUCH SUGAR CAN WE HAVE?
Enjoying something sweet in response to a craving is not a reason to feel guilty. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it can provide us with pleasure.
The same can be said for choosing foods based on an event, holiday, or even emotional state. Having a piping hot cup of hot cocoa after a snowman building session, for example, is a fond memory and tradition that many people enjoy. It is not based on nutritional value, but is worthwhile for other reasons nonetheless.
It’s also probable that a constant stream of sweets will lead to a stomachache or cavities. And the more we fill up on simple sugars, the more we lose out on a variety of foods that provide the body with all sorts of benefits.
All of this to answer that our “sweet spot” is likely in the middle somewhere, and no doctors, dietitian, or friend can tell you exactly what amount that is. It is unique to the individual.
This can be difficult to swallow, so to speak, because many of us are so used to following food rules (whether learned from others or even subconsciously). We feel more comfortable following specific diet plans than we do trusting our own food instincts.
Paying attention to how we are feeling before, during, and after eating is oftentimes left out of the equation, and I think that’s a mistake.
😳 IS SUGAR ADDICTING?
If the definition of “addicting” is that we crave sugar all day every day, then the answer is yes. It’s addicting because our bodies need carbohydrates to function.
But is sugar addicting in the same way drugs or alcohol are? I’m not convinced. “Sugar Addiction” is not a medical diagnosis and there is no conclusive research to indicate it should be at this time. But when we restrict ourselves from eating foods (as many of us do with sugar), then the desire to have it will certainty feel like addiction.
See this post on Food Addiction for more information.
👫 DOES SUGAR CAUSE HYPERACTIVITY IN KIDS?
Do the kids or grandkids come home from a party or trick-or-treating totally off the wall? Is it hard to put them to bed at night?
Many parents blame the candy, the goodies, and/or the juice. These are certainly exciting things. But so are other overstimulation factors at play such as friends, music, toys, missed naps, and schedule changes.
There is currently no scientific research to indicate sugar intake causes hyperactivity in children.
🥤 ARE NON-NUTRITIVE SWEETENERS (NNS) A GOOD SUBSTITUTE FOR SUGAR?
NNS are probably best known for their use in diet sodas, but also anywhere else sugar is typically found. Common brands include Truvia® (which includes stevia), Equal® (using aspartame), and Splenda® (using sucralose), but there are many more alternatives.
Some people like the taste while others find them off-putting.
NNS are calorie-free and do not impact glucose levels in the blood. For this reason, they are popular within the diabetic population to help with blood sugar control. NNS is also popular outside of the diabetic population, typically as a way to decrease calorie intake during the day.
There is no clear evidence that these sweeteners, at the levels typically consumed in human diets, cause cancer in humans.
Because NNS do not contain calories, they typically do not satiate us when eaten in isolation. Our hunger cues are quickly stimulated again, which makes us look for something else to eat. This negates the purpose of using NNS; therefore, consider having the real thing to begin with. It may be just the ticket to satisfy cravings.
👻 IT MAY BE SCARY AT FIRST…
But, perhaps it’s time for a new outlook this Halloween, reminding ourselves that if food is less elusive, we lower our risk of over eating it.
I recommend the following mindful eating exercise. It helps people re-connect to what they truly like (or do not like!) about foods they have been restricting, like Halloween candy for example.
It is most effective when done during a quiet time of day, when you’re not hungry or full (somewhere in the middle), and there are no other distractions. It will take about 5 minutes. A Halloween costume is optional! 🤠
Based off of the iEAT Scripted Activity.
1. Choose your favorite piece of Halloween candy (though this can be done with any sweet, at any time of year you like). For this exercise, I like a “fun size” which is about two bites.
2. Simply look at it before unwrapping. Check out the package colors, how it feels in your hand. Mentally describe the item as if you were telling someone about an object they have never seen before.
3. Unwrap it carefully.
4. Hold the candy in your palm. Look at it, smell it, and notice the details about the shape.
5. What does it smell like – notes of spices or flavorings? Maybe smells conjure up thoughts or feelings not related to the food? There are no right answers, just notice.
6. Take a bite and chew slowly. Is it soft, crunchy, mushy, sticky, soggy, firm? Again, there’s no right description, just observe.
7. Think about the tastes and textures you are experiencing, as well as the mouthfeel from start to finish – does the texture change? Does the aroma change? What does it feel like on your tongue and teeth?
8. Swallow and take the second bite. Repeat steps 6 and 7 again.
This practice may be enjoyable and satiating, or perhaps the candy is not as exciting as anticipated. I have tried this activity with a certain chocolate candy – one I had previously restricted for fear it would be so good I couldn’t control myself – and was surprised by my neutral reaction to it. It wasn’t so scary after all!
This is simply one way to re-explore your relationship to foods that have felt off-limits. But, there are many other mindful eating practices to try.
🍫 FINAL COMMENTS
As always, we enjoy reader engagement and dialogue about these nutrition posts. We are curious – what’s your Halloween candy of choice and do you give yourself permission to enjoy it when you want it?
Please share in the comment section below, and don’t forget to have a Happy Halloween if you celebrate!