Your kids have been waiting all year for October 31. They’ve probably been arguing with friends about the most awesome costume involving the latest superhero or Disney movie character — and they have their plastic orange pumpkin ready to collect their sugar-rush stash.
For many kids, Halloween is the best night of the year.
Sugar affects the nucleus accumbent, the reward center of the brain, in a similar way to hard drugs by flooding it with excess dopamine.
You only have to watch a few of Jimmy Kimmel’s “I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy” videos to realize this candy means a lot to kids — enough for them to throw outrageous tantrums if they don’t get it. Halloween is America’s biggest candy holiday. Spending on the spooky holiday in 2015 reached $6.9 billion, with $2 billion of that in candy alone, according to the National Retail Foundation.
For kids prone to overeating, the holiday can pose a serious risk for developing a sugar addiction. People recognize sugar cravings anecdotally, but the psychological science behind legitimate sugar addiction has surfaced in recent years.
Dr. Bartley Hoebel, recognized as one of the American Psychological Association’s distinguished scientists, has researched the effect of sugar on rats and found its effects on the brain mirror the effects of such hard drugs as cocaine and heroin. In a 2005 experiment, he showed that rats developed a dependence on sugar and demonstrated withdrawal symptoms, such as teeth chattering and tremors — similar to addictive drugs.
“Let them gorge out on it for one or two days. Then find a way to get the candy out of the house and be done with it.”
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“Sugar is a refined, plant-based substance that has been purified into a drug form in the same way we take the inner essence of a coca leaf and turn it into cocaine and take the inner essence of a poppy plant and refine and purify it into heroin,” said Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson, CEO of Bright Line Eating and president of the Institute for Sustainable Weight Loss, in Rochester, New York. “That’s what we’ve done with sugar. It’s not a natural substance anymore.”
Sugar affects the nucleus accumbent, the reward center of the brain, in a way similar to what hard drugs do — by flooding the brain with excess dopamine, she told LifeZette.
However, telling your kids that their Halloween candy is toxic is clearly going to ruin their fun — and set you up to be the “worst parent ever.” Thompson said the main cause of sugar addiction is chronic daily exposure, not special holidays. She recommends emphasizing the other aspects of Halloween — “the costumes, the trick or treating, the family time together, the pumpkin carving.” And when kids come home with a stockpile of candy, let them enjoy their treats.
“Let them gorge on it for one or two days,” said Thompson. “Then find a way to get the candy out of the house and be done with it. So basically, just cap their consumption. [Don’t restrict it] in the moment by saying, ‘You can only have two pieces of candy,’ because that restriction is going to make them fight you and set you up to be a meanie and increase the reward salience of the sugar for the brain. Try, after one or two days, to just get the sugar out of the house.”
Don’t let the whole month of October, November, or December turn into a candy fest. Create a story similar to the tooth fairy for younger children, suggested Thompson. In the same way the tooth fairy comes to take their teeth, a great pumpkin can come to take their candy. They could gather all their candy into a basket and set it on the porch — and in the morning there could be a pumpkin there in its place. Some parents have started using the Switch Witch, which swaps out their excess candy for a small gift or token.
There are also candy donations for the military through organizations like Operation Gratitude and Soldiers’ Angels. Most communities host a candy drop off, and telling your kids there are people who didn’t get any candy for Halloween can motivate them to share with people less fortunate than themselves.
The bigger issue than Halloween or the holidays, Thompson said, is chronic consumption of sugar. Pigging out every once in a great while isn’t going to make you addicted — but eating a dessert or treat every day can have a negative effect on some people. She recommends that parents steer clear of sugar-laden juices, dehydrated fruits, and processed foods such as pudding and jello.
“Above all, model good eating habits year-round, with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies but minimal sweets,” she said.