How to Handle the Halloween Sugar Rush
Ashley is a pediatric registered dietitian and soon to be mom of three. Her mission is to bring other families less meal time stress and more feeding success. Ashley does this each week through sharing simple approaches to meal planning and effective strategies for raising healthy eaters on her blog and social media. Follow her on Instagram @veggiesandvirtue or her blog.
One of the first things that makes parents’ skin crawl around Halloween isn’t the spooky decorations or costumes. It’s the sheer amount of sugar their kids are eating. This makes many parents worry because there’s an overlying level of confusion about how much sugar is appropriate for kids. Many parents wonder how to monitor the types they do eat and what approach is best for managing sugar during Halloween and other holidays oriented around food.
I understand the struggle as a mom myself and am here to give you the peace of you need to enjoy the holiday and make Halloween (as well as other candy-coated holidays) part of your healthy lifestyle.
Keep reading for daily sugar limits, the different types of sugar we consume, and ways to keep sugar from being an enemy. Don’t miss my four tips for managing candy around Halloween so you and your little one can enjoy this spooktacular holiday.
How Much Sugar Can Kids Have?
We all recognize that the candy consumed on (or near) Halloween is “too much” compared to what most eat on average. For many parents though, they don’t know how much sugar is technically “too much” when it comes to our children’s everyday eating habits or if how much sugar they can have is based on their age, caloric intake, and activity level.
Let’s compare some of the most current recommendations on what research finds is “the right amount” of added sugar in the diet:
- The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends we consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars based on one’s total caloric intake.
- The World Health Organization recommends all children and adults reduce their intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories. It further recommends that a further reduction to below 5 percent of total calories may be beneficial.
- The American Heart Association recommends 100 calories from added sugar per day for anyone. This is the equivalent to 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of added sugar regardless of your age, caloric intake, or activity level.
So which of these is a parent to listen to?
All of them.
That’s because, regardless of whether it works out to be 100 calories of added sugar for a preschooler (10 percent of their intake based on the DGA) or the same amount for an active high school athlete (what The American Heart Association recommends), the bottom line remains the same between all of these organizations, advisory panels, and associations: We need to consume less added sugar (than we likely already are).
Yet, it can feel impossible to make this happen at Halloween. So what are we to do? First, let’s review the difference between natural and added sugar. With this, we need to also highlight why added sugar isn’t always bad and how to approach a holiday traditionally oriented around candy.
The Difference Between Natural Sugar and Added Sugars
Many parents are surprised by how much sugar I let my kids eat as a dietitian mom. There are some important distinctions here, however, between natural and added sugar that might help fellow families loosen their grips when it comes to the types and amounts of sugar their child consumes.
First of all, we need to remember that there are two overall forms of sugar: natural and added sugar.
Natural sugar is that which occurs naturally in the foods we eat. Foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains all have sugar that contribute to a food’s overall carbohydrate content. Even though such sugars are naturally occuring, they show up on the “old” Nutrition Facts label under “Sugars.” This can be highly misleading to parents who are watching how much sugar their child eats because natural sugars are not included in the sugar intake recommendation.
The sugar that dietary guidelines encourages limiting to less than 10 percent of total calories is added sugar. One way to differentiate natural from added sugars on the “old” Nutrition Facts labels is to also look at the ingredients list. If there are natural sugars present, they’ll only show up under “Sugars.”
Added sugars are included in the total amount of sugar, but you have to look to the ingredients list to determine if there are in fact added sugars in the item.
The new Nutrition Facts label (that will be required on packaged goods by 2020) will help to ease this confusion by identifying the difference between “Total Sugars” from those that are “Added Sugars” (see images below) so you don’t have to read through the ingredients as closely.
When identifying added sugars with the old labels, look for the following terms, which are all considered “added sugars:”
- Ingredients ending in “-ose” (sucrose, fructose, maltose, dextrose)
- “Syrup” (high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup solids)
- “Sugar” (granulated sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar)
Note that added sugar also includes sweeteners that are recently gaining popularity as being “refined sugar free” like maple syrup, honey, and agave syrup. These are still sources of added sugar though, even if they’re technically less refined than some of the former.
Like naturally occurring sugars, added sugars offer sources of energy that are quickly absorbed in our blood streams. The difference is that they do not necessarily offer nutritional benefits (outside of calories alone) unless paired with a more nutrient-rich food.
For more on identifying added sugars and comparing nutrition facts labels for the amount of sugar in everyday items, check out our article: Simple Ways to Reduce Your Child’s Daily Sugar Intake.
Why Added Sugar Isn’t Always Bad
My kids eat a drizzle of maple syrup on their oatmeal, honey on their yogurt, and even a little cane sugar in their shakes (like the ones we make with Healthy Height Shake Mixt). Some people are surprised that I don’t have kids who willingly want to eat plain yogurt (which for the record, neither do I!).
The reason I don’t mind these “exceptions” is because sugar plays more of a role in the diet than simply acting as “empty calories” (like candy) or a quick-source of energy alone. Sugar also helps foods to be more palatable, especially to children. This means that for a food your child might otherwise refuse (like plain oatmeal or yogurt), a little bit of sugar can go a long way.; A small amount of sugar might be what helps them to both eat and enjoy these nutrient-dense foods that children may otherwise avoid altogether.
While such use of some added sugar (within the recommended amount) can have its place in our everyday diet, we also need to focus on where we can reduce our intake of added sugars. This allows us to make room in our diets for seasons when our families are inclined to eat more sugar than what’s recommended.
Instead of cutting sugar out altogether, however, focus on transitioning from high-sugar habits to a low-sugar, and low-added sugar, routine By slowly transitioning the foods our families eat on a day-to-day basis, we allow a bit more margin for holidays like Halloween when intake of added sugar increases.
Here are some ways to make small gradual shifts:
- Use plain oats, adding sweetness with fresh or frozen fruit and a little maple syrup (as needed).
- Buy plain yogurt and add a drizzle of honey.
- Make kid’s shakes with products that have less added sugar than the competition, like Healthy Height.
Knowing how to handle our children’s everyday intake of added sugars can help us to be better prepared for days like Halloween that are an exception to our everyday sugar approach.
4 Tips for Managing Sugar Around Halloween
Being the week of Halloween, this article likely catches us parents on high alert as all of our kids are eating more added sugar than what is recommended (my own included).
My tips here aren’t to pass out raisins instead of ring pops nor to call in the Switch Witch for their remaining candy (although, I am not against either of these ideas!). Nor do I think parents need to find an age-appropriate explanation for the nutrition (or lack thereof) in candy.
Trying to limit access or label candy can be more harmful than helpful in teaching kids how to manage their intake of added sugars. That’s why I encourage parents to show (by example and setting healthy boundaries) rather than they talking about if sugar is good or bad.
By following a simple framework like that one I’m sharing below, families can approach this holiday oriented around sugar (not just Halloween!) without turning our kids’ sweet memories into sour ones.
The Day Of Halloween: Focus on Fuel First
Your role as a parent on the day of Halloween is to focus on what, when, and where food is offered (as shared here on How to Handle Halloween Candy and the Division of Responsibility in feeding). Since kid’s excitement will be growing as the day goes on, start their day with a breakfast filled with fat, fiber, and protein (as recommended here).
When your kids get home from school, but before they go trick-or-treating, offer a hearty afterschool snack or early dinner. Include your favorite green smoothie with a serving of Healthy Height for a festive, filling “Green Goblin Smoothie.” This will help to satiate your kids so that their appetites will be better regulated come all the sugary snacks presented throughout the evening. Need some smoothie ideas? Check out Healthy Height’s big list of easy-to-make smoothies.
Halloween Night: Choose Joy, Not Control
Be at peace about the sugar that’s being consumed the night of Halloween. If you yourself have personal struggles with self-control around sweets and other treats, consider working on this within your own life to avoid common parenting pitfalls around sugar like the ones I share in this blog post).
Practices such as intuitive eating can allow you, as the parent, to find joy over control in your own food choices, while also demonstrating to your child what it looks like for all types of foods to fit in a healthy lifestyle. Kids notoriously enjoy holidays that are centered around sugar and “special foods,” so the best thing we can do as parents is to help neutralize the otherwise forbidden nature of these foods.
Give your children the freedom to enjoy them as part of the special occasion because research shows that trying to control our children’s intake and access to such foods (like candy), creates the opposite effect. By restricting certain foods our children perceive as “special” or “forbidden,” their overall selection, intake, and behavioral response to such foods actually piques and thus can be more problematic in the big picture.
Instead, on a night like Halloween, parents need to remember that their job is not to be a food police but rather a partner in crime to enjoy the festivities with their child(ren)—food and all.
The Day After Halloween: Create a “Dessert Policy”
If the idea of enjoying endless amounts of Halloween candy in your house is creating anxiety for you, it’s time to create a dessert policy and share your plan with your family moving forward. On the night of Halloween, after your little monsters are in bed, you (and your spouse) might want to evaluate how to approach the remaining candy.
When you create your dessert policy, determine what, when, and where dessert (or possibly in this case, candy) will be available. Often times, as it applies to Halloween candy, I recommend parents allow kids to choose one piece of candy as part of an afternoon snack or with dinner.
This makes it available at a predictable time and place, as well as in an expected amount, to help reduce the endless number of requests kids might otherwise have for candy all day long. This also makes candy available at times when it is less likely to disrupt their intake of other nutrient-dense foods either and in environments when it might otherwise be eaten mindlessly and less enjoyed (I.E. in front of the TV).
Tomorrow morning, share the dessert policy with your children. Together, in a transparent and team-oriented fashion, relocate their candy stash to the pantry, a cupboard, or some place where it isn’t in everyday, plain sight. This makes it so they know where it is (rather than feeling you hid it from them), while also helping everyone to shift their focus off of eating it all day and onto other fun elements of the season.
When you move the candy to a more permanent spot, share with your kids what, when, and where candy will be made available. Allow your child(ren) to ask questions to gain understanding and better get on board with the plan. Be clear and consistent about these boundaries around Halloween candy to lessen the stress for both you and your child in the days to come.
Thereafter: Remember: It Takes Time
Many of the principles for how to handle holidays oriented around food and sugar also apply to our everyday life. That is, fuel our families with nutrient-rich food before we go to a feast. Enjoy a celebration and savor the sweets, treats, and seasonal eats that come with them. Then, return to a healthy lifestyle while finding ways for aspects of the holiday or it’s foods to fit into an overall healthy lifestyle.
Many parents wonder and worry about how long their kids will want their Halloween candy after the holiday itself—what if it rolls into the other often food-oriented holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas? That’s when I remind parents that these are not just habits we form around one given holiday, but rather ones that we instill in our families as part of our year-round lifestyle.
Usually, kids will ask for candy on their own a lot in the initial few days following Halloween. Over time, however, especially once a dessert policy is in place and the candy has been out of sight for some time, kids lose interest in it. It’s forbidden nature has faded.
Your Healthy Halloween Plan
With Halloween behind you, consider keeping the family dessert policy and enjoy other dessert foods (instead of candy) or re-evaluate it altogether. With either approach, you show your kids how to be flexible around all foods, including those with added sugar. In doing so, we parents not only equip our children to have freedom in their relationship with all foods, but also set them up for a lifetime of knowing how to handle Halloween without fear of the foods.
I hope that this article helped you to feel more confident in how to handle the sugar rush of Halloween. For more ideas and insight on the subject, check out Six Simple Takeaways on the Sticky Subject of Sugar.