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.
There could be longer-term drawbacks to absolute food restrictions. Some research suggests that denying types of food sets kids up to eat when they’re not hungry, potentially increasing the risk that they will become overweight or develop eating disorders. When your kid finally has a chance to get her hands on those forbidden candy corn that she doesn’t even like, she may binge on them (even if she’s full), and then she may feel guilty, and this cycle may emotionally charge her relationship with food. That said, other studies have not found restriction to have these long-term effects. One problem is that it’s hard to tease out cause and effect from some studies: Do kids eat more and gain weight because their parents restrict foods, or do parents restrict foods because their kids overeat and gain weight? And certain types of kids may be more harmed by restriction than others: Studies suggest that upper-middle-class white girls, children who have overweight mothers, and kids who do not have as much inhibitory control are more likely to develop abnormal eating habits in conjunction with food restrictions.
Buying your kids’ candy off them might backfire for a similar reason: It may send the message, Wow, if Mom is going to pay me for this stuff, it must be really valuable. (Plus, it shows your kids that you’re “overinvesting in their choices,” Stasenko says. “I will not be surprised if kids ask to get paid to eat their carrots the next day.”)
So denying your kid Halloween candy can be a bad idea. But there are nuances and caveats to consider. First, if your child has a health condition such as diabetes that requires careful eating, do what you need to do to keep her healthy. Second, it’s important to realize that restrictions come in different shapes and sizes. For instance: “Not offering candy to a child who does not ask for it, or who perhaps does not even know about candy, is not the same as actively restricting a child from eating candy when it is available and she is interested in it,” explains Katie Loth, a postdoctoral student at the University of Minnesota and the former project director of Project F-EAT, a National Institutes of Health–funded study aimed at understanding the role that parents and families play in the weight and weight-related behaviors of adolescents. She explained this to me after I told her that my son, who is 2½, trick-or-treated this weekend as part of a neighborhood party and then handed me his candy bag and promptly forgot about it. I haven’t offered him any of his candy since (and, um, there’s not much left); is this bad? Loth said no. Because my son doesn’t even realize I’m restricting him from Kit-Kats, my approach probably won’t backfire.
What Loth is talking about here is the difference between “overt” and “covert” food restriction. Overt restriction is when your kid says, I want one of those Mars bars, and you say, No way. Covert restriction is when you don’t have any Mars bars in your house to begin with, so your child doesn’t know what they are or doesn’t think to ask for them. At its core, “covert” restriction is about engineering a healthy home environment for your kids that makes it easy for them to eat well. (Good luck, though, if your kid has seen food commercials on TV; once your child learns what Cocoa Puffs are and wants them, your no may turn covert restriction overt.) Surrounding your family with healthy foods promotes better eating habits because, first, your kid sees you eating these foods, and second, she simply has more opportunities to eat well. Research suggests, for instance, that the more fruits and vegetables you keep in your house, the more your kids will eat them and the more they will like them. (For more on how to get your kid to eat better, see my column on picky eating.)
Back to your kid who wants his Halloween candy. Clearly, research suggests you should let him have it. But you can engineer certain aspects of his environment so that he eats it more responsibly—and yes, you can also set some limits. First, just like you shouldn’t grocery shop on an empty stomach, don’t let your kid trick or treat while hungry: Make sure he eats a familiar protein-rich meal before he goes out. (But “never say, ‘If you do not eat your broccoli, no trick-or-treating tonight,’ ” Stasenko says. “This is rewarding with food, and it has been shown to have a negative effect on long-term relationships with food, leading to emotional eating.”)
Second, don’t make a huge deal about the treats. When you discuss Halloween with your kids, focus on the nonfood aspects that make it fun—the costumes, the interactions with neighbors, the parades. And although kids are undoubtedly going to sneak some pieces of candy when they shouldn’t, set some ground rules about when your kids should enjoy it. Encourage them to develop “delayed gratification” skills by asking them not to snack on their candy before they return home. (This will also give you the opportunity to check their stash for open wrappers or unsafe items.) Then, tell them that they can have a few pieces of candy at each designated snack time, so that they can learn to enjoy the candy, but in moderation, and they still get to balance the candy with actual meals.
In essence, we, as parents, need to appreciate the difference between setting useful limits and creating authoritarian restrictions. (Apparently the lady in North Dakota who plans to give “fat letters” to obese kids instead of candy this year needs to learn this distinction—as well as a bit about the ineffectiveness of weight victimization—too.) The former helps kids develop self-control, whereas the latter may undermine it. Loth summarized it for me this way: “Create, to the best of your ability, a food environment that offers variety—including some sweets and snack foods—but emphasizes healthful food choices and makes them easy to choose. Within this food environment, let your children choose what they want to eat without restricting their choices.” By embracing the M&Ms these next few days, you may ultimately help your kids eat better in the long run.