Tricks or Treats? How does Candy Really Affect Kids?

By Sasha Reddy

This article has been reviewed by Jeannie Versagli, RD, LDN. Jeannie is a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a national professional organization, and is licensed in nutrition with the State of Delaware.

It’s Halloween night. All tails are fastened on, and all cape strings are tied. The facepaint is fresh – it’s not the best, but hey, kudos to mom for trying. A well-stocked candy bowl sits in the foyer, ready for trick-or-treaters. This holiday holds many parental responsibilities, but keeping the kids tame and tantrum-free may be the most challenging.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to consuming trick-or-treat spoils. Some parents are very regimented, only allowing kids to eat a certain number of pieces each night, only after dinner, and only so close to bedtime. Others find it best to let kids get all their candy cravings out at once. Here, registered dietitian Jeannie Versagli discusses the real effects of sugar consumption and how parents can help kids develop a healthy relationship with their treats.

Escape the Belly Ache

We’ve all experienced the stomach pains that come after eating too many sweets. “Candy is very concentrated in [processed sugar],” Jeannie explains. “When you eat a lot of it, and the body gets overwhelmed, it has to rush fluids into the gut area to try to get that metabolism going.” This can cause various symptoms – upset stomach, bloating, diarrhea, and others – collectively called dumping syndrome.
Also known as rapid gastric emptying, dumping syndrome occurs when food moves too quickly from the stomach into the small intestine. It can occur anywhere from ten minutes to several hours after a meal, and while eating too much of anything can cause these symptoms, sugar is a common offender.

Rationing out the Halloween haul rather than gobbling up every piece of candy in one sitting can help avoid discomfort.

Sugar Rush or Halloween Hype?

Though parents often worry about too much sugar sending kids into hyperdrive, it can actually have the opposite effect. “Sugar can, in some people, increase serotonin levels in the brain,” Jeannie says, creating a calming effect in the short term. If your kids tend to exhibit foul behavior after eating too many sweets, Jeannie says the sugar probably isn’t to blame. “Be careful how you classify an overdose of candy,” she urges. “Be mindful of the whole thing that’s taking place.” Whether in school, across grocery store signage, or on TV, the excitement around Halloween starts building weeks before the actual day. Jeannie argues that the holiday buzz primarily drives children to become overstimulated, not the abundance of candy. Yes, the excess caffeine and processed sugar from your child’s trick-or-treat haul can increase blood pressure, spike blood sugar, and cause them to act out of character. But, like birthday parties and other celebrations, the anticipation around Halloween often prompts kids to become over-excited and misbehave even when candy is not part of the equation.

The Bigger Picture

Though sugar may not be responsible for your child’s mid-trick-or-treat temper tantrum, a high-sugar diet does produce many adverse effects over time. Jeannie notes that diseases linked to excess sugar consumption include obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, generalized anxiety disorders, and more. In addition, sugar is a food source for harmful bacteria in the body, which throws the microbiome out of whack. As bad bacteria overrun the gut, they promote inflammation, produce metabolic disorders, and even weaken the immune system over time (1). Moreover, the battle between kids and added sugar is prevalent far beyond Halloween. On the whole, Americans already consume an average of 17 teaspoons each day – way more than the recommended ten teaspoons or less for ages two and up (and none for kids under two years old) (2)! Most of these added sugars come from sodas, juice boxes, and other sweetened drinks, which offer little to no nutritional value.

That being said, helping individuals develop a healthy relationship with sugar from a young age is critical, and allowing the occasional sweet treat is part of that process. According to Jeannie, it is vital to understand that “too much of any food – whether it’s considered on the ‘healthy’ list or not – is not beneficial.” Halloween is just the right occasion to teach kids that candy is nothing to be scared of; treats have their time and place, and sugar, like most other foods, should be enjoyed in moderation.

And if you’re reading this wondering how to kick your own sugar habit, it’s not too late to change course. Start by identifying when you crave sweets most, whether right before or right after a meal, before bed, when feeling stressed, etc. Then, start integrating more fibrous, nutrient-dense carbohydrates in place of artificially sweetened options – over time, your appetite will adjust for the better.

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