As a parent, I have a love-hate relationship with Halloween. I love seeing my son dress up—this year he’ll be a most adorable green dinosaur—and I enjoy watching my community come together to celebrate with its kids. But I hate that this holiday drowns kids in candy. We’re desperately trying to teach our children healthy eating habits and the importance of consuming food in moderation, and then, once a year, we’re like, Hey, honey, want to go out and collect ungodly amounts of sweets so you can devour them in 48 hours? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
Sure, there are clever ways around the candy problem. You can have your kids swap treats for toys with the tooth fairy, for instance. Or you can use the candy to do cool science experiments—did you know that when you drop a Skittle in water, the S floats to the top? Some parents go so far as to buy the candy from their kids, although that approach could backfire (more on that later).
But what if your kids don’t want to barter with the tooth fairy or set off controlled Kit-Kat explosions or sell you their Butterfingers? What if they really, really want to eat 8 pounds of candy? Right now I bet some of you are thinking—commenting, probably—What’s the big deal, lady? Chill out and let your kid eat some candy. (I know former Slate contributor KJ Dell’Antonia would agree.) And you know what? Research suggests that you might be right. As much as I’m going to hate watching my kid swallow eight Snickers bars in 90 seconds, letting go of my controlling tendencies may be the best thing for my son’s long-term well-being. That’s because when parents try to restrict their otherwise healthy children from certain foods, or when we actively pressure or coerce them to eat what we want, kids retaliate. Worse, our well-meaning interventions may cause our kids to develop abnormal relationships with food, increasing their risk for emotional eating and eating disorders.
First, let’s talk about what happens when your kid eats eight Snickers bars in 90 seconds. Assuming he’s otherwise healthy, he’ll survive (and hopefully, so will you). Table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are comprised of two sugar molecules in similar quantities: glucose and the much sweeter fructose. In response to the cornucopia of glucose, your kid’s pancreas will release the hormone insulin, which will sweep the glucose out of his bloodstream and shuttle it into cells, where it will be stored for future energy needs. Some glucose may also get turned into triglycerides (fat blobs) and returned to the bloodstream. Ultimately, the insulin spike and blood sugar drop may leave your child’s blood sugar lower than it was before, so he may get grumpy, but what did you expect? As for the fructose—the other sugar molecule—it will go straight to the liver, which will turn much of the sugar into fat. Some will get stored in the liver, and some will be sent back into the bloodstream. The fructose may also blunt his body’s release of appetite-controlling hormones called leptin and ghrelin, making him feel peckish despite the 1,800 calories he just ate. As for the fat from the candy, his body will convert it into fatty acids and cholesterol and then store it as fat inside fat cells. The three processes I described—the blood sugar spike and drop as a result of the glucose, the fructose being turned into fat and pumped into the bloodstream, and the fats being stored inside fat cells—are not particularly good for your child, for sure, but they only truly become dangerous when they happen over and over again. If your kid doesn’t have the opportunity to scarf down insane amounts of sugar and fat very often and doesn’t have other health concerns, there’s no reason to be worried about a once-a-year Halloween binge.
Plus, letting your kids eat crazy amounts of candy on Halloween may make them want less of it the next day. That’s not just because of they’ll associate Reese’s Pieces with stomachaches—it’s because kids can get obsessed with foods that they’re not allowed to eat and conversely crave foods less that they’re allowed. “When kids know they will be able to have unrestricted access to candy from time to time, it will greatly reduce the lure,” explains Natalia Stasenko, a pediatric nutritionist with Tribeca Nutrition in Manhattan.
This idea isn’t just based on speculation. In a 1999 study, Penn State researchers identified three types of snacks—wheat crackers, cheese fish-shaped crackers, and pretzel fish-shaped crackers—that a group of 4- to 6-year-olds found equally tasty. Then they split the kids into groups and seated them around tables. They allowed all of the kids as many wheat crackers as they wanted but put either the cheese fish-shaped crackers or pretzel fish-shaped crackers in a clear container in the middle of the table and told the kids they couldn’t have them. After several minutes, a bell rang and the groups were each allowed to eat as many of the formerly banned crackers as they wanted in addition to the wheat crackers. The researchers found that the kids talked positively about, asked for, and ate whichever type of cracker they had been denied—far more than the always available wheat crackers. Interestingly, the kids who became most preoccupied with the forbidden crackers were those who had parents who restricted certain foods at home.
What about when kids don’t even love the restricted food—like if you take away your daughter’s candy corn when she likes chocolate better anyway? Doing so could make her heart swell for candy corn. In 2008, Dutch researchers put kids into private rooms and placed bowls of fruit and sweets in front of each of them. They told one-third of the kids to eat whatever they wanted from the bowls, told another one-third to only eat the fruit, and told the last third to only eat the sweets. Five minutes later, they lifted the restrictions and told all the kids to eat whatever they wanted. The kids who had been told they couldn’t eat the fruit then ate 60 percent more fruit than sweets, even though these same kids, before the experiment, said they didn’t like fruit as much as sweets. Most importantly, the kids who had not been given any restrictions ate less food overall than did the kids who had been restricted from either food.