The Halloween Candy Trap
Halloween is less than a week away. Boxes of candy and chips have been lining the shelves of your grocery store for weeks already. Sales have started, the prices look good, so much selection, so enticing.
Halloween isn't an easy time for people who struggle with food. It's complicated and filled with mixed feelings of nostalgia, and pleasure, and wanting to be free, but also guilt and struggle and 'why did I eat all that' and 'why can't I control myself'. It's coming up with all kinds of arguments as to why it is reasonable to buy bags of candy, and why some candy now won't hurt, and why stashing up after the 31st with the discounts is a good idea. And here's the truth: If you want Halloween candy, and you love the discounts, and you're already dipping into your basket that's ready for the kids, and there's no extra brain chatter or frustration or guilt about it- YOU GO FOR IT, LADY! No harm done! I support you!
I had years when Halloween candy was no big deal for me, with no brain chatter at all, no angst or struggle.
But then it changed, then I struggled with food and weight and control, and then Halloween was a big, annoying, guilty, shameful, frustrating and confusing time. So I'm going to break it down. Halloween candy is tough for a few reasons and here's why: 1) Unbeknownst to us, the price of candy impacts our desire to get it. There's a cost-benefit analysis that our brain goes through when making decisions, including food purchases. It calculates what the best bang for your buck (or energy expenditure) is. Your brain is constantly doing these small calculations under the surface, the same calculations that would quietly decide- should I go walk 10km in the heat to hunt an animal for my tribe, or shall we just eat berries today a be a little hungrier? We're always choosing what to do based on pursuing our needs (in the currency of reward and pleasure), avoiding pain, and conserving energy. When you consider Halloween candy, you've got pure pleasure (your brain knows that), for no effort/energy and a low cost (score), and the possibility of pain if you don't get it (it only comes around once a year). The cost-benefit analysis will likely land on a big 'YES' when considering whether to buy it or not. 2) You brain knows the candy is high pleasure and high reward- it remembers this from years past, it remembers this from last week when you also ate something sweet and high pleasure. For anyone whose brain pleasure centre expects intense highs from stimulating, modern foods regularly, the mere sight of Halloween candy is going to stimulate the release of dopamine (pleasure), which physiologically would be the motivation needed to send you out into the bush to collect the food you need- in this case, the motivation to say yes and pick up the candy for purchase. When your brain has imprinted certain foods as high pleasure/reward, it assumes these foods to be vitally important, and creates a subconscious physiological drive to get them.
3) If you've been trying to lose weight by counting calories, restricting foods, or controlling what you eat, it's possible that you're coming head to head with your biological set-point of nutrient/energy requirements. If you're moving through your days consuming slightly less fuel than you body requires, it's possible that you're triggering a basic survival instinct that will make any high-reward foods (think nutrient or calorie dense foods with high pleasure, think Halloween candy) look really good. This is a classic response to restriction, skipping meals, fasting or cleansing- your brain puts much more attention on foods that it knows will provide potential life-saving (or so your brain thinks) energy in the midst of food scarcity, or a drop in weight.
4) You've told yourself you shouldn't buy it or eat it, and when you do, you're emotionally conflicted and feeling regretful simply because you went against the rule you had put in place. These arbitrary rules we put on food cause more harm than good- they hold us up to a self-imposed standard, and if unmet, we make it mean we've failed. It's easy to say you're not going to buy candy this year, but it's important to recognize that what you're doing is creating a rule that will have emotional consequences if broken. What's more beneficial, yet harder, with less firm ground to stand on is saying, "There are no rules. If I feel a desire to eat Halloween candy this year I'm going to get really present with myself and only eat it if I truly want to. I'm going to stay aware and notice how it tastes and notice if I enjoy it. I'm not going to make rules, but instead allow myself to eat what I want, if I want it, and take my time with that decision. Maybe I'm actually hungry? Maybe I'm tired? Maybe I don't need the candy, or maybe I'm not yet actually skilled in staying conscious about the whole thing. The point is, I know the candy is not the problem, it's my emotional and thought-based response to eating it that causes me the pain, and rules just make it worse."
Okay. Let me re-cap. If you're struggling with Halloween candy, it's not your fault.
These modern, stimulating, processed foods,
which our brain knows to be high-reward, high-pleasure,
which are unconsciously valued as a great deal,
and are staring at us as we move through the grocery store,
creating a surge of dopamine in our brains,
which motivates us to buy them,
are designed to be this way.
Further, if you're trying to loose weight currently, or control what you eat and tell yourself 'you're not going to eat any of the candy', then you're actually increasing the emotional pain and struggle you feel if you do eat it. Go easy on yourself. Stay present. Recognize the innate, natural pull of Halloween candy that is the result of a normal healthy brain working the way it should.
Instead of having the goal to control what you eat at this time of year, shift your goal to minimizing the guilt and frustration, and finding ways to stay present with your experience around Halloween candy.
If you're currently struggling and need some support, feel free to book a free Discovery Call and let's chat.