Just in Case You Need to Hear It: Go Ahead and Eat the Halloween Candy
If you went trick-or-treating as a kid, you probably have vivid memories of Halloween: skipping around the neighborhood with a pillowcase or jack-o'-lantern bucket in hand, costume-clad, hunting down the houses with the full-size candy bars. The night would likely end with you dumping the whole thing out onto the floor, searching through your treasure, and trading with siblings or friends to get even more of your favorites.
At some point between your own childhood years and now, however, you may have stopped eating Halloween candy — perhaps because you learned it's "bad for you." Eating candy simply isn't "something healthy people do," you've been told time and again, and so you gobble your Gobstoppers in secret.
Although there are obvious differences in the nutritional value of, let's say, raw vegetables and your favorite fun-size candy bar, labeling foods as "good" and "bad" simply isn't a healthy way to think about eating, registered dietitian Lauren Cadillac, CLT, CPT, says. "Bad and good imply morality, meaning if we eat these 'bad' foods, then we ourselves are 'bad,'" she explains. "Eating a 'bad' food can elicit guilt and shame, which are two emotions that should not coincide with eating."
You may have heard this sentiment before, especially in the last few years, with the rise of the anti-diet movement. Still, you may have had trouble disconnecting from that mindset. After all, many of us have internalized this good-vs.-bad message from spending years in a society infiltrated with diet culture — and deprogramming that perspective can take time. In a perfect world, you wouldn't think twice about enjoying the Halloween candy that you'd like to eat; you'd have the candy bar you're craving, and move on with your life.
To put it simply, you'd eat intuitively, says Laura Cohen, a former RD, certified intuitive-eating practitioner, and lead family mentor at Equip Health, a virtual eating disorder treatment center. At the core of intuitive eating is the practice of following your body's hunger and fullness cues, and eating what you want — without overthinking it.
"When I think of Halloween, I think of being a kid and being so excited to go trick-or-treating, and eat the candy, having all those choices, and how fun it is," Cohen says. "And the last thing I'd ever want someone to think about on Halloween is that you shouldn't eat the candy because someone's given it this label that it's bad for you. It just shouldn't even be part of the narrative."
But for a lot of people, that's easier said than done.
Why Restriction — Not Candy — Is the Enemy
Many people may fear that if they allow themselves to eat sweets, they'll never stop, Cadillac says. For this reason, some people won't keep things like Halloween candy in the house, out of fear that they'll eat the whole bag — but the restriction is actually what's causing the problem in the first place.
"You eat the whole bag because you don't keep it in the house," Cohen says. Let's use Hershey's Kisses as an example. If you have a bowl of them out on your kitchen countertop, and you have some every day, they become a normal part of your life. Eventually, "they lose that shininess. They lose that value," she says. "And you realize, I can keep Hershey's Kisses in the house because I'll just take a Hershey's Kiss when I really want one. Many people are so scared and they think that they're addicted to food, but it's really the restriction that gives them that feeling."
It's called habituation, Cohen says. If you have the food around, you get used to eating it, and it takes away the moral value of the food; it takes it off the pedestal, she explains. "If you just put that food in your life and you take away the value [judgment] from the food, it just becomes like everything else," she says. A Hershey's Kiss will have the same allure as a bunch of grapes; you'll desire them equally.
Because the reality is, "your body will not feel good if you eat Halloween candy all the time. It will crave variety and different nutrients," Cadillac says. Give your body the candy when it wants it, and otherwise, it will probably lead you toward other things.
Reconnecting With What You Want
It sounds easy — the idea of making candy available and eating it only when you want it — but many of us have "put so many rules and restrictions around food that we don't even know what we're in the mood for anymore," Cohen says.
To build this skill, one of the first steps is to listen to your hunger and fullness cues. "Make sure you stay nourished throughout the day," Cadillac says. "When we allow ourselves to get ravenous . . . we tend to make choices out of primal hunger and eat quickly and beyond what our body needs." If you eat when you're hungry and until you're satisfied, you should feel more in control of your food decisions.
From there, it helps to remember that eating doesn't exist in a vacuum, and that means there's a lot more to your noshing than hunger and nutrition, Cohen says. There are feelings and emotions, memories, nostalgia, customs, rituals, social factors, and joy all attached to food. And contrary to what you may have heard about "emotional eating," that's not a bad thing.
Foods like Halloween candy give our body physical energy, yes, but also "provide us with satisfaction, enjoyment, and nostalgia, which are all valuable parts of the eating experience," Cadillac says. That's one reason why, often, if you choose a "healthier option," it won't leave you satisfied. This is known as chasing "phantom foods," she says. "By choosing what we 'think' we should eat instead of what we're truly in the mood for, we're left unsatisfied and searching for more. This can result in us eating beyond our true hunger needs in an effort to fill this void."
Cohen agrees. If you genuinely want that dark chocolate date bark, go right ahead. But if you actually want a Snickers, eat that. Eating intuitively means getting in tune with your body, following your hunger and fullness cues, and eating what feels good, she says, "and sometimes what feels good is because your emotion wants you to eat it. And that's OK."
Just know that it can take a while to learn to eat intuitively and shut out all the noise of those "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts." It may feel scary at first, but it does work, Cohen says. "At the beginning of the process, it may feel like you're addicted to the food and like you're eating a lot of it, and that's part of it. That's OK."
And intuitive eating may not be possible for everyone. If someone does have an eating disorder or a history of disordered eating, they probably won't be able to intuitively eat, Cohen says. "There is a portion of our population, mainly someone who has battled restrictive anorexia, that very well may never have the correct hunger/fullness skills and may never be able to intuitively eat." If that's you, it's important to find support with a mental health or eating disorder professional who can help you heal in your own way.
Whether you have a history of disordered eating or not, restriction only fuels the fire, Cohen says. So this Halloween and every other year, just say yes to the candy — if and when you want it.
—Additional reporting by Samantha Brodsky