Consuming too much sugar at Halloween may lead to unpleasant physical symptoms that resemble an alcoholic hangover, and while a quick recovery is possible, healthcare professionals as well as proactive parents advocate for prevention as the best cure. Although the term “sugar hangover” is not a medical or clinical diagnosis, it popularly describes the array of unpleasant symptoms including headache, brain fog, upset stomach, lethargy, mood swings, and joint pain that can result from overindulging in sugary foods.
Statistics show the average American consumes about 24 pounds of candy per year, and the largest amount for children is on – or following – Halloween. The treats collected by the average child on Halloween night can add up to 3,500- 7,000 calories, according to a 2012 report by public health educator Dr. Donna Arnett of the University of Alabama-Birmingham Department of Epidemiology. Interestingly enough, if a 100-pound child consumed all 7,000 of those calories, he or she would have to play basketball for 14.5 hours or walk for 44 hours to burn them off.
Even without Halloween candy binges, the American diet contains too much sugar for optimal health. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), American men and women consume approximately 20 teaspoons of added sugar each day on average. This amount exceeds the AHA recommendations; that women consume no more than 100 calories (six teaspoons) per day from sugars added to foods during processing, and men should consume no more than 150 calories per day, or nine teaspoons.
This excess intake of sugar adds up over time, and has been linked by health researchers to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, dental caries and gum disease, and is known to suppress the immune system. Pediatrician Bill Sears, MD, describes on his web site what happens in the body when excess sugar is consumed: A large amount of sugar is consumed and blood glucose rises; the increase in blood glucose signals the body to increase insulin production; the extra insulin triggers a craving for more sugar; and a “roller coaster” effect is created that can have detrimental physiological and psychological effects over time.
Dr. Sears also states on his site that eight tablespoons or 100 grams of refined sugar, which is the amount found in 2.5 cans of soda, can reduce white blood cells’ ability to kill germs by 40 percent. It takes less than 30 minutes for the immune-suppressing effect of sugar to begin once sugar has been consumed, and the effect may last for up to five hours. This immune system depression effect from Halloween sugar binges coincides with flu season, creating an ideal situation for spreading infectious diseases. That is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes advice on proper hand washing in its list of links and tips for having a safe and healthy Halloween.
Consuming too much sugar at one time, as so often happens for both children and adults at Halloween, not only creates a need for short-term sugar hangover recovery strategies but provides an opportunity for building longer-term strategies for prevention as well. According to wellness educators, some short-term strategies for recovering from a sugar binge may include: eliminating any immediate additional intake of sugar; emphasizing high quality protein, leafy vegetables, and good sources of fat in the meals following the binge; staying well hydrated by consuming lots of pure, plain water to activate the kidneys and flush the system; choosing cultured or fermented foods to repopulate healthy intestinal flora after digestive upset; and increasing physical activity to stimulate metabolism and help burn off extra calories.
Beyond the short-term strategies for recovery after consuming too much sugar, health professionals, including many doctors and dentists, agree that the best way to recover from a Halloween sugar hangover is to prevent one in the first place. Preventing the over-indulgent intake of sugar involves honoring the concept of moderation and being proactive in planning for Halloween and other holiday activities.
The National Confectioners Association points out that a new definition of moderation for candy consumption has been proposed by a group of registered dieticians in an effort to inform the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to be published soon by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. The proposal is for moderate candy consumption to be defined as 50-100 calories a day depending on individual needs and allows for calories to be reserved so larger portions could be consumed less frequently. The authors of the proposed definition emphasize that their idea represents a realistic approach to viewing candy in a healthy perspective, since a 2011 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics survey found that 82 percent of consumers do not want to stop eating foods they like.
KidsHealth.org empowers parents to be proactive at Halloween by gathering and sharing information about what other parents have done and are doing to keep Halloween healthy and safe. Some examples of proactive Halloween sugar hangover prevention include: Serving a healthy, nutritious meal before the exposure to sugar-laden treats begins; offering healthy non-candy alternatives for trick-or-treaters, such as small toys, stickers, or temporary tattoos; setting limits for consumption and sticking to them; being a role model, and exercising moderation as a parent.
Health professionals, local businesses, and community organizations periodically team up to sponsor programs for helping parents stay proactive in preventing the consumption of too much sugar at Halloween. Proactive parents and youth leaders can join existing programs or create new ones in their local areas.
In one national example of a proactive partnership, the American Dental Association teamed up with PopCap Games in 2012 to create the Stop Zombie Mouth campaign to help prevent the tooth decay and gum disease that can be exacerbated by too much sugar and Halloween candy. The program made coupons for a free downloadable game available and produced an educational video that remains relevant for a wide range of ages today. Local dentists and community organizations also sometimes sponsor candy buy-back programs or even live community events that focus on healthy prizes and emphasize the fun of collecting rather than the act of consuming.
Halloween sugar hangovers can be prevented with proactive planning, and while speedy recovery is possible by following balanced nutrition and exercise practices when too much sugar has been consumed, health professionals advocate for building and maintaining healthy diet and exercise habits over time. By practicing proactive planning and moderation the choice to enjoy sweet treats on special occasions can be part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
By Lane Therrell