It’s that time of year again. Halloween is over and children have piles of candy saved up from trick-or-treating. But should parents be worried about the amount of candy they’re eating? Some experts say setting strict limits could lead to disordered eating and other health issues down the line.
Nishta Saxena, a Toronto-based registered dietician and child and family nutritionist at Vibrant Nutrition, told CTV’s Your Morning that many parents’ anxiety about their child’s sugar intake is likely rooted in their own unhealthy relationships with sugar and misconceptions regarding their child eating too much sugar, affecting their weight and development.
“We can’t really just tell children, ‘Sugar is bad, don’t have it.’ That’s not actually a solution,” Saxena said. “Children need to sense and feel what it’s like to have unlimited amounts of sugar at certain times, so they can understand that for themselves.”
For example, a family featured on CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday shared in a post on Instagram a method they use to mitigate their child’s Halloween candy consumption. They call it the “switch witch,” which involves allowing their daughter to pick out five of her favourite pieces of candy to keep.
The rest of the candy gets put outside the home on the front porch out of the child’s reach and gets replaced overnight by the mythical switch witch, with a toy or another item set there in place of the candy. This parenting method allows them to limit their child’s consumption on a given day by removing the candy from their sight, they say.
Saxena said she considers this trend more of a form of bribery or manipulation rather than facing the issue head on.
“The truth of the matter is, it’s a short-term answer. You’re not really addressing the issue of sugars in the world, it’s in our food supply,” Saxena said.
It’s a method Janine Laforte, a Winnipeg-based registered dietitian at Real Life Nutrition, similarly told CTVNews.ca she wouldn’t recommend to parents looking to curb their child’s sugar intake. Being strict on how much sugar your child eats can have the reverse effect that parents are aiming for, she said.
“Maybe in some situations this might work OK. Kids are really little. Maybe there are some food allergies that are present and the kids can’t really consume the candy anyway,” Laforte said. “But for the most part, it’s teaching kids that sugar is bad. ‘If sugar is bad, and I like to eat sugar, maybe I’m bad’ and they start to internalize those feelings as well.”
By not imposing a limit on the amount of sugar or candy your child eats, Laforte said kids develop confidence to trust themselves and their bodies.
“I think it’s important to focus on other parts of Halloween as well. The candy is part of it too and it’s OK to let them be excited about that and really truly enjoy it,” said Laforte. “Because when we really truly can sit down and enjoy these kinds of foods, and allow ourselves to enjoy it, we’re not going to be wanting it as often.”
Instead of completely eliminating Halloween sweets from the home, Saxena suggests a few tips that might be more effective in managing how much candy your child eats.
One method includes allowing kids to have two to three Halloween treats at dinnertime and, over the span of a couple of weeks, packing a few treats with their lunch. Another approach, she said, could include designated snack times, when they get to have as much candy as they want.
Allowing your children to know that candy is available and incorporating it with other healthy aspects of their everyday meals, such as protein and fiber, de-emphasizes sugar and decreases a child’s keen interest in sugar, Saxena explained.
High daily sugar intake in preschool-aged children and teens has been linked to adverse health effects, including increased risk of excessive weight gain, dental decay, poor diet quality and nutritional inadequacy in children and adolescents younger than 19 years old, according to a report from the Canadian Medical Association..
Many studies point to sugar-sweetened beverages as another source of high sugar intake among children and adolescents, which can lead to obesity. Experts say such beverages should also be taken into account.
Nutrition experts are also seeing increased rates of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in preteens and teens, which is cause for concern, Laura N. Anderson, associate professor in public health at McMaster University, told CTVNews.ca.
“There’s an important aspect around Halloween candy of not shaming children when they’re eating too much. Making sure we’re also promoting healthy body size,” Anderson said. “Healthy bodies can be any size and just focusing on the fact that we don’t want to be creating negative eating habits, food aversions or things related to candy as well.”
To avoid framing sugar as an entirely negative aspect of a child’s diet, Anderson suggests parents focus on increasing the amount of healthy foods they eat as recommended by Canada’s Food Guide.
“Sugar is not totally off limits and we know sugar is in lots of foods and things that we enjoy,” said Anderson. “Try to reduce the amount, specifically about candy, trying to think about it in moderation. It doesn’t have to be a part of (your) everyday diet, but keeping it to an infrequent food that your children have.”
Reporting for this story was paid for through The Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Black Journalism Fellowship.