Halloween scares the heck out of me. Not because of the hobgoblins, witches and warlocks that roam the streets, but because of the candy. Many a recovering food addict has “lost it” on this day — or should I say night? — of sanctioned sugar overdosing. The stores burst with candy, the kids whine for candy, and even if you have no youngsters of your own, you are obliged to buy candy for other peoples’ children and dispense it like the drug that it is.
In the U.S., the National Confectioners Association projects that retail sales of Halloween candy this year will be a horrifying $2.6 billion. That’s a lot of M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces, Snickers bars and candy corn — and a lot of sugar binges and Halloween hangovers.
It all seems like a pretty crazy tradition to me. Those food addicts among us cannot eat just one piece of Halloween candy (or Christmas candy or Easter candy or any-other-day candy) and be able to stop or “moderate,” as the NCA recommends. For the true food addict, sugar and many of its chemical cousins that constitute junk food, is poison.
Imagine adult alcoholics and drug addicts going door to door, asking for alcohol or cocaine or heroin. Then suppose neighbors handing out little nips of whisky or tiny plastic bags of coke and heroin. Would you expect these addicts to imbibe that one night and then stay clean the day after?
It sounds bizarre but that is how Halloween is experienced by the food addict addicted to sugar. “They’re giving out my drug,” laments one food addict. Another adds, “This is the beginning of the worst season of the year because the Halloween binge leads to the Thanksgiving and Christmas binges. Then the New Year’s resolutions are broken just in time for Valentine’s Day. It just never ends.”
It never ends because the food addict’s brain can be literally hijacked by sugar, just as it can be by alcohol or cocaine or methamphetamine. All of these substances have an impact on the release of “feel good” chemicals in the brain — serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.
As I explain in my book Food Junkies, our bodies are hard-wired to motivate us to fulfill the essential tasks of survival, such as eating, procreating and sleeping. These behaviors are reinforced by a reward-seeking mechanism built into the brain. When everything is in balance, the reward is sufficient to motivate just enough of the necessary behavior, not too much, not too little.
Being the imperfect humans that we are, the reward system can go haywire, prompting a person to want more reward than is possible through normal behavior. This is the essence of addiction — the craving, the insatiable need, the increasing tolerance and the withdrawal. Alcohol, addictive drugs, gambling, sexual activity and food can all fire up the reward pathway to heights that our evolutionary brain cannot possibly achieve naturally. They give us a big payload of “happy neurochemicals,” which results in the artificial high that is the euphoria of intoxication.
To make matters worse, clinical experience has indicated that when addictive substances are introduced into the brain at a faster pace, the gratification is heightened. A person who drinks on an empty stomach gets drunk more quickly since the absorption of alcohol is not competing with food.
So when it comes to that “innocent” Halloween candy, think about this: The fibrous stalk that protects the sucrose of sugar cane limits the amount of sugar we can ingest. But if you harvest and remove the sugar from the sugar cane, the end result is one of the primary raw materials contributing to food addiction.
Something else to consider: Most addicts don’t start their drug of choice until their teens or later. But addictive foods are introduced to all of us in infancy. That young trick-or-treater is being exposed to truckloads of the sugar drug even before the brain, specifically impulse control, has a chance to develop. Halloween sets up the neurological pathways for addictive eating in the immature brain. What are we doing to our young with this scary tradition?