Halloween can be scary for parents and I don’t mean the plethora of ghosts, little witches and goblins that roam our streets. Our society comes with a helping of fear-mongering around sugar. Which is particularly unnerving for parents at times when sugary foods are part of the norm at a celebration be it Halloween, Christmas or a birthday party.
We’re told that sugar is “toxic”, “addictive” and linked to an array of health issues. We get bombarded with rules and restriction messages that instil fear on a daily basis. When we desperately want to do the best by our children, yet the scariest thing at Halloween has become the idea of our child full of sugar!
Raising healthy kids who have a positive relationship with food and their bodies becomes difficult when certain foods are marketed directly at our children. We also know those foods taste pretty good and are literally going to be handed to our child by the bucketful. If these foods are also seen as harmful, bad and toxic, where are we supposed to stand on this issue?
In an ideal world, we want to empower our child with an ability to make choices that help them feel both happy and healthy right into adulthood. Part of this will be developing the ability to regulate their own eating and deciding what is right for their own body. This is something that takes years of practice, trial and error. We know the most effective way for children to learn is through direct experience. So how do we create a safe environment for them to learn while protecting their healthy relationship with food and body?
Let’s start with getting the facts straight on sugar:
Sugar in itself is not toxic. Too much of anything, can, of course, be toxic. However, the current research on sugar toxicity comes from animal studies which are not directly applicable to humans. Additionally, they used significantly larger quantities of sugar than most people would eat in a week let alone one sitting.
The only research that indicates sugar may be addictive, applies to those people who have previously restricted it.
There is not currently any good quality evidence showing that sugar leads to hyperactivity or behaviour changes in children.
So while ‘sugar is poison’ makes for a juicy headline, it is not particularly helpful. Firstly because it isn’t strictly accurate, secondly because sugar is so accessible, we need more than a soundbite to help our child learn what works best for their body. Aside from Halloween and birthday parties, there are always going to be times where sweet foods will be on offer. Unless you plan on isolating your family completely, this makes it hard to avoid. Additionally, that would mean giving up all the rich celebrations and togetherness that often accompanies these foods.
Research suggests if we restrict children from eating sweet foods completely they never have the opportunity to learn how to manage these foods, leading to potential problems later in life. Even Sarah Wilson has now admitted quitting sugar wasn't sustainable for her, even though she wrote the book on the subject and made millions out of everyone's deprivation. Sadly her admission comes a little too late for those harmed through the disordered eating encouraged by her regimen.
One study observed girls aged 5–7 years old. It found that whose parents restricted sugary foods ended up eating more when they did have access to them, compared to those in families with a more relaxed approach to sweets. Heartbreakingly, those girls felt bad about themselves when they ended up eating in the absence of hunger. When morality, self-worth and feelings of shame and guilt become linked with eating (something we do every day) it can have a negative impact on our mental well being and body image, affecting our relationship with food and body for the rest of our lives.
Halloween and other holidays have such potential for awesome teachable moments. If we can let go of feeling we need to control our child’s eating, we can relax and actually enjoy the celebration with them. Creating memories of mischief and fun, rather than battles over how many bites of a chocolate bar they can have before the stash of sweets gets confiscated. Or a lecture on how what they are eating is bad for them (when all they can taste is sweet chocolatey goodness, they are not hearing or believing you!)
If we can approach Halloween with a growth mindset, that is the possibility that we might learn something about ourselves and each other it becomes less scary. It means letting go of past fears and future anxiety, allowing yourself to remember why you are involved in the celebration in the first place. Relaxing your fear of sugar, helps your child relax around it too. It becomes just one aspect of the overall occasion, not the main event. The key is being open to trying a new way of approaching things. As we are aiming to build lifelong skills that go long beyond the day of Halloween, taking a leap of faith seems worth it.
At The Food Tree we are inspired by the work of the renowned Dietitian and Family therapist Ellyn Satter and reiterate her approach to managing these “restricted foods”.
So here is a take on her plan for the days around Halloween:
1) Allow your child to eat as much or as little as they want on the night of Halloween. Let them manage their own collection of sweets without interference. This will likely be a time of exploration. They may eat more than their body feels like (especially if this is a new freedom) and feel sick after, and that’s OK. It’s part of learning as they too figure out how to listen to their bodies and trust that you are not going to interfere/restrict.
The natural consequence of feeling ill will have a far longer-lasting impact on their learning, than any lecture or advice we could give! Providing this opportunity and trust is key in helping our children learn to self-regulate and tune in to their bodies own hunger and fullness cues. They will learn to eat these foods moderately when given access to them in a matter of fact way (using neutral language). As a parent, you can help to guide some reflection in these moments. “How does it feel in your body?” “What could or would you like to do differently next time?”
2) Use neutral language in reference to the foods on offer. Try to bite your tongue from referring to them as “treats” “occasional foods” or “unhealthy”. Food is food. When all foods are morally neutral it helps to put the joy back into eating and steps away from a shame and fear-based mentality, that can be damaging long-term. It also quietens the noise and hype around certain foods. When we can just allow ourselves to be present while eating, not distracted by feeling guilty or ‘naughty’, we can focus on how that food actually makes us feel. This makes it much easier to self-regulate our intake, and continue to do so with clarity, throughout our lives.
3) Allow your child to self-manage their sweet collection the next day. Invite them to hand it over to you when they are done. Give another opportunity to eat as much or as little as they like at a snack time and to choose a couple of foods to have at dinner time alongside the family meal.
As the parent, you’re providing a structure and framework for your child to explore eating these foods across the week alongside their meals. By continuing to occasionally offer the foods alongside meals, you are taking the sweet foods off the pedestal. They are no longer a reward or bargaining chip, they are just one of the foods on the table.
Allowing this freedom at celebration times not only allows them to genuinely enjoy the excitement and fun of the moment, over time this becomes the knowledge that they can be relaxed around sweet foods because it’s no big deal. It may provide an opportunity to learn that you can have too much of a good thing. Those errors of judgement provide an opportunity to learn from mistakes and make different choices next time.
That is a growth mindset towards food, in action, which is a wonderful gift to give towards eating and getting to know our own bodies. It turns errors of judgement into learning opportunities. There will be times in your child’s life where they overeat because that is a normal part of being a human! The difference with this approach is because you have been relaxed and open about it, allowing them to manage their own intake, they are more likely to talk to you about it. Rather than hide and feel shame.
The novelty soon wears off eating endless sweets, you start wanting a refreshing glass of water and something crunchy. When you know that you will have the opportunity to enjoy these foods again, in a relaxed and guilt-free way, there is no need to sneak, hide or binge. Food is food. Some we eat just for the taste or the experience, others we choose because we know it fuels our body well. It all serves an important purpose.
These are skills that your child will carry with them for life. Enabling both a positive relationship with food but also, a positive mental well-being for your child and healthy body image.
For us at The Food Tree we see this as a vital part of raising healthy kids.