A nutritionist explains why it's okay.
Halloween is just around the corner, and if your kids are anything like mine, they've already had exposure to a higher-than-usual influx of candy. And you know the kids are here for it.
If your child was already preoccupied with candy, holidays like Halloween may seem to make their fixation on candy even worse. Or if you have a stash of Halloween candy or treats in your home, your kids may seem obsessed with wanting to eat it.
"Can I have candy?" "I want to eat candy!" "When can I eat my candy?" "It's not fair—you never let me eat candy!"
Sound familiar? Yep, I get it, mama. You might feel like your child is Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "I want it and I want it now!" As much as we love our kids, the non-stop demands for candy can feel tiresome.
But there's good news: You don't have to withhold candy from your kids. Believe it or not, raising healthy children involves giving them candy. Here's why.
Candy isn't inherently bad—but fear and shame are
If your kids were constantly demanding you feed them broccoli, the desire for a particular kind of food might feel like a non-issue, am I right? But because the thing that your kids may be asking for is a food demonized as less than "healthy" and blamed as the culprit for all kinds of diseases and behavioral problems, it feels unsafe.
Candy may feel like something you need to rigidly control access to, but this approach can backfire. Have you ever hidden something from your kids, only to find they seem to become more preoccupied with it? We are naturally drawn to the very things that we're told we can't have. So telling your children that candy is off-limits can actually make them feel more obsessive about having it.
Adding a layer to this is the language that is often used about candy. It's not uncommon for us to describe foods in polarizing terms, such as good vs. bad, or healthy vs. unhealthy. Even when used with good intentions, this language creates a moralistic association with food that kids can internalize at an early age.
You may tell your children that candy isn't healthy for them and therefore, they shouldn't eat it. Or your children may hear that candy is "bad" or "terrible" for their bodies. Again, language like this is often used with good intentions and with the belief that this will in fact deter kids from eating candy and sweets.
However, what this actually teaches kids is that they are bad for wanting or eating candy (not the candy itself). Kids don't view food in the same way that we do as adults, nor do they make food decisions based on arbitrary standards of "healthy vs. unhealthy."
All they know is what tastes good to them and what feels safe. Food can slowly but surely become unsafe when they begin learning that certain foods are "bad" for them.
The bottom line: Restrictive control tactics around candy, along with polarizing language about candy, can not only cause children to feel more preoccupied with candy, but it can create fear, guilt and shame for wanting and eating these foods.
Why it's okay to treat candy like any other food
Remember that your kids are born with innate programming that helps them self-regulate the foods and amounts they need to grow at a rate that is right for them. That's right—your child is born as a natural intuitive eater, and by taking a neutral approach and stance to candy, you can help preserve their innate abilities to regulate all foods, including candy.
Good health and nutrition goes far beyond the nutritive qualities of the foods themselves. It involves finding satisfaction and pleasure in food and being able to respond to and respect your body's hunger and fullness signals.
When kids are presented with restrictive feeding tactics, this will interfere with their natural ability to self-regulate and increase their obsessiveness and preoccupation with these foods. You can help your child develop a healthy relationship with food by having regular and consistent opportunities to eat sweets.
The goal is not to try to avoid giving them candy. Rather, we want to help them have a healthy, non-obsessive relationship with candy. We want them to be able to eat and enjoy candy when the opportunity arises in an amount that feels best for them... and then move on with their lives!
Raising healthy children means letting them eat candy without fear or shame
Because of the fear-mongering messages around sugar and our children's health, as well as the fat-phobic culture we live in, candy has become demonized to the point that parents are terrified about allowing their kids to have candy.
The truth is, you can restrict your child from having candy or access to candy, but this will never be a long-term solution for helping them develop a positive relationship with all foods. A child who has been restricted from candy often grows up to be an adult who has a chaotic relationship with sweets, regularly binges on desserts or overeats candy whenever they do have access to it.
Regular exposure to candy doesn't detrimentally affect your child's health or well-being. In fact, the opposite is true. Meaning, if your kids feel more obsessive and preoccupied with candy, they will likely develop adverse behaviors around food that will be harmful to both their health and mental state.
Kids who are preoccupied with candy will be more likely to:
- Overeat or binge on candy when presented with the opportunity (which can negatively affect their overall physical health)
- Feel anxious, guilty or shameful around candy-eating experiences (which can poorly impact their overall mental health)
Research has found that when parents restrict their children from eating palatable foods, such as candy and desserts, then their kids will be more likely to eat in the absence of hunger, or overeat those foods.
In order for your child to have a positive relationship with food and their bodies, candy needs to be part of the equation. Again, this may seem completely counterintuitive to what you've been doing, or even how you were raised and brought up, but it's so important to keep the big picture in mind in order to help support your kids in a positive, meaningful way.
What's the difference between liking candy and being obsessive about it?
Most kids get excited about candy, am I right? I have yet to meet a kid who wasn't excited about candy or sweets in some shape or form. But there are key differences between excitement and interest in candy and preoccupation or obsessiveness with candy.
Signs your child may be preoccupied/obsessed with candy may include but are not limited to:
- Repeatedly asks you and other adults for candy
- Displays food behaviors, such as sneaking, stealing, hiding, or hoarding candy
- Unable to focus on other activities due to preoccupation with candy
- Prioritizes eating candy above all other foods
- Feels urgency, stress or anxiety about eating candy, or about when the next time candy will be available
This is in contrast to a general interest or excitement with candy, which may look like this in a child:
- Enjoys eating candy
- Is able to eat candy and move on with other activities
- May leave pieces of candy behind when eating
- May switch between eating candy and other foods
- Doesn't have a sense of urgency about when they will be able to have candy again
Preoccupation or obsessiveness with candy is a direct symptom of restriction. Meaning, a child who is showing signs of candy obsessiveness likely has restricted access to candy, or has not had enough opportunities to eat candy to help them feel satisfied and content.
If your child is displaying signs of obsessiveness or preoccupation around candy, know that there are opportunities to help correct this. By increasing exposure and opportunities to eat candy, you can help decrease any obsessiveness that your child might be having around candy.
What to do if your child is obsessed with candy
If you have a child who is preoccupied with candy, sweets or desserts, this may be a sign that you need to give them MORE exposure and opportunities to eat candy. Remember, this may feel counterintuitive, but increasing exposure by giving more frequent opportunities to eat candy is a proven strategy for decreasing preoccupation around candy.
Your children will need to have opportunities that include both:
- Unlimited access to candy, where they can self-regulate and figure out what amount of candy feels best for them without any direction or rules from you. It's not uncommon for parents to feel uncomfortable giving kids permission to do this, but I can't stress how important it is to help your child learn how to self-regulate around candy and sweets. Many parents may fear that their kids would go crazy and binge on a candy overload. If your child has never been allowed these opportunities, there is a possibility that your kids may in fact overeat their candy or even eat candy to a point where they feel sick. Even if this happens, your kids will be okay. They may need to have these experiences with candy to learn what amount feels right for them. Over time and with repeated opportunities to have unrestricted access to their candy, they will eat less of it and learn how to better self-regulate.
- Recurring structured access to candy with meals and snacks. Children need recurring access to sweets within their structured meals and snacks. Especially for a child who is preoccupied or obsessed with candy, the frequency may need to be higher than you might feel comfortable with. For example, if you currently allow your kids to have a piece of candy or dessert a couple times a week after dinner, but you notice they seem to be obsessive about sweets, this frequency may not be sufficient. Similarly, if you allow your kids to have dessert after dinner every night, but they still are showing signs of obsessiveness around candy, this frequency may not be enough. Especially around holidays or seasons where there is a higher influx of candy (such as Halloween candy), you may want to consider allowing your child to have candy with more than one meal per day.
Again, keep in mind the long-term goal of helping your child have a healthy relationship with food. Recurring exposure to candy will drastically decrease your child's obsessiveness and or preoccupation with it. When kids can trust that candy is a regular part of their present and future meals, they will become significantly less preoccupied with it. Also, by allowing candy at meals and snacks, you have a designated response if (and when) your child does ask you for candy: Instead of saying "No," or "Not right now" (which can further increase their preoccupation with candy), you can say, "Yes! You can choose a candy to eat with your lunch."
How to help kids eat candy in a healthy way
1. Allow regular access to candy.
Your child actually needs to have regular access to candy with meals and snacks without any stipulations or rules attached in order to develop their own self-regulated approach to eating sweets.
Your child may eat the candy first then move on to other foods, or vice versa. You don't need to be the food police. You can decide how many pieces your child can have, but let your child pick their candies out and decide at what point during the meal to eat them and how much of the candy they want to eat.
The key here is no stipulations, meaning, your child should be allowed to eat their candy with the meal, not if the meal has been eaten, or if a certain number of bites of vegetables or food have been eaten.
2. Allow periods of unrestricted access to candy.
In addition to regular access to candy with meals or snacks, your kids may also need periods of unrestricted access to candy. This is where you can give opportunities where they have unlimited access to candy or sweets.
What might this look like? My recommendation is to allow this within a structured snack time. (I still strongly recommend having regular meal and snack times for your child.)
This does not mean candy should just be a free-for-all, or that your child can eat candy whenever they want throughout the day. Pick a snack time, such as an afternoon snack where your child can have unrestricted access to a bowl of candy or another dessert-type food.
Let them have access to their candy bag or a bowl of candy along with 1-2 other food components, such as a glass of milk and produce. Let your kids pick out how many pieces of candy they want to eat without any guidance from you. Other times you can allow your kids these times of unrestricted access to candy might include holidays such as Halloween night.
3. Have boundaries around candy.
Kids still need healthy boundaries around candy, just as they do around food in general. These boundaries might include where candy will be kept and when it can be accessed.
Candy should be in a place that your child can both see and access. If candy is out of reach or out of sight, they will likely become more preoccupied with it. In the same way, your kids may feel obsessive about their candy if they don't know when they will be allowed to have it.
This is why it's important to communicate with your kids about when they will be allowed to eat their candy. Make sure you and your kids are on the same page about when they can access their candy bag.
If they know they will be able to have some of their candy with their meals, this can help decrease their preoccupation with eating candy.
For example, if they're asking for candy between meals and snacks, you can let them know that a time to eat candy is coming up soon. Offer your kids gentle reminders for adhering to and holding boundaries established around candy.
4. Create positive experiences around candy.
More than anything, kids learn about food and eating through their environment and from their caregivers. If your kids are picking up on negative language or cues about candy being "dangerous" or "bad," they won't feel safe to enjoy their candy. Be aware of the language you're using to describe candy, and be cautious about your own attitudes and behaviors.
Try not to use phrases or words that demonize their candy intake, such as "That's too much sugar," "Too much sugar is so bad for you" or "Are you sure you want another piece?" This type of language puts fuel to the fire and can make a preoccupation with candy even worse. Instead, seek to create enjoyable and positive experiences around candy.
Create a positive (or at least neutral) environment for your child around candy—let them see you enjoying candy in a relaxed, neutral setting. Talk to your kids about their favorite candies, why they enjoy them, or even the types of candies you enjoy eating. If your child can see you enjoy some candy alongside them, this will help reassure them that they're not "bad" for liking candy.
4. Check your own issues about candy.
Do you feel anxious or nervous about your child eating candy? Where might these fears be coming from? Understanding your own history and past experiences can help create awareness around your own feelings that may be triggered when your child is eating candy.
Fear of sugar often goes hand in hand with fear about being in a larger body (or growing into a larger body). Many parents may fear the potential ramifications of their children eating too much candy or sugar, including worries about kids being in a larger body. Having a history of being in a larger body yourself or having a child that may already be in a larger body can put you on high alert about candy.
Be aware that your kids pick up cues from you about eating candy—just like everything else—and those cues might create stress or anxiety for your child around the act of eating candy.
If you have your own history of disordered eating
Some parents who have a history of disordered eating or chronic dieting—which can create a chaotic relationship with sweets—may feel particularly fearful about allowing children to have candy. But even if you've struggled with food or your body in the past, you can try to separate your own issues or fears from your children in order to help them create new and positive experiences around food, and to help yourself feel confident to build a trusting feeding relationship with your child.
Maybe you don't trust yourself to eat candy, or perhaps you don't allow yourself to have candy or other desserts in the house for fear of how you may eat it. If this is the case for you, you may want to include another caregiver in this process in order to support your children. Let another adult take over managing the candy bag if you don't feel like you're in a place where you can help your kids build a positive relationship with candy.
Again, if you've found yourself in this position, it's okay to recognize that you're not ready to do this with your kids. You will get there in time. In the meantime, please give yourself all the grace in the world.
But wait—isn't excess sugar bad for kids?
We can't talk about the topic of kids and candy without addressing the elephant in the room, right?
Most of the parents I talk to are concerned about their kids eating too much sugar. I get these questions a lot as a nutritionist:
- Does sugar make kids hyper?
- Is eating candy every day bad for you?
- Can a kid get diabetes from eating too much sugar?
- What happens to my child's blood sugar after eating candy?
- Can a child throw up from eating too much sugar?
- What are the long term effects of sugar on body weight?
These are all valid concerns that can fuel parents' fears about allowing their kids to eat candy. And if there is a family history of diabetes, health conditions or concerns and fears about larger bodies, this can create real stress about eating candy and sugar in general.
Again, these fears can be the trigger for rigid restrictive feeding practices that may potentially make a child more obsessive or preoccupied around eating candy. That's why I urge parents to step back to see the bigger picture.
The truth is that there is no research that supports a direct causation between candy consumption and adverse health conditions. Meaning, the fact that your child eats candy alone is not going to result in poor physical or behavioral consequences. Kids eating sugar does not cause diabetes, as this health condition is the result of many different factors.
In fact, research has found that restrictive feeding practices, especially around sweets, can be more detrimental to a child's physical and mental health over the long term. Studies have found that children who are deprived of high-fat, high-sugar foods show increasing BMI and eating in the absence of hunger over time. Research has also found that parental restriction can increase the risk for excessive eating of the restricted foods, as well as for developing eating disorders, like binge eating disorder.
If you have been strictly controlling sweets or restricting access to candy, you are likely doing these things with good intentions and because you want the best for your child. But it's also important to ask: Will restricting candy help your child to have a healthy relationship with food? While it may seem counterproductive to allow your child regular access to candy with structured meals and snacks, the consequences of restricting access to candy, and associating candy with fear and shame, can prove far more dangerous to your child's overall health.
It's also important to note that a child's body size should not be indicative of whether or not that child is allowed to eat candy. Restrictive feeding practices with children, regardless of their body size, will result in adverse effects, and can potentially cause an increase in weight gain and risk of eating disorders. Remember that a healthy weight for children goes beyond just the number on the scale or their body mass index.
What are your child's attitudes, behaviors, and feelings toward food? Addressing this question is the key to helping your child live a healthier life—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Ultimately, they need you to trust them as they work through this process.
Remember that all foods, including candy, are an important part of creating memories and enjoying life together. Don't let short-sightedness or fear-mongering tactics around candy or sugar rob you—or your children—of enjoyment.
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