Kids eating sweets every day may be headed for problems that go beyond extra visits to the dentist, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The researchers, from Cardiff University in Wales, started with the proven premise that sugar consumption in children is linked to behavior problems and heightened aggression—that much every parent and pediatrician knows well. But the Welsh scientists took a more expansive view, questioning whether eating sweets in childhood has any long-term effects on adult behavior—specifically aggressive behavior. What they found, after sifting through data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, could be enough to make you nix Snickers forever: Among the17,500-participants in the study, those who as kids were eating and sweets every day were much more likely to have been convicted for violent behavior at age 34 than those who didn’t eat sweets daily.
The study authors aren’t certain what specifically is behind the link. But one explanation, they have said, is about delayed gratification. “Giving children sweets and chocolate regularly may stop them learning how to wait to obtain something they want,” the lead study author said. “Not being able to defer gratification may push them toward more impulsive behavior, which is strongly associated with delinquency.”
It goes without saying that an occasional sweet will not a delinquent make. But it seems likely that limiting chocolate and candy now makes for less scary behavior later. Not to mention, less-scary dental bills.
Here’s what you can do to teach your kids delayed gratification when it comes to candy and sweets—and (bonus!) raise healthier, less violent people with fewer cavities as a result:
#1: Don’t stock your faves. “Buy Halloween candy to dole out just a few days before, or on the day of, Halloween, so no one is tempted around the house,” suggests Elisa Zied, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of the upcoming book, Nutrition at Your Fingertips. And when stocking up for Trick or Treat, avoid temptation by purchasing candies no one in the house craves.
#2: Pay attention to portions. “Candy is a big part of Halloween fun,” acknowledges Zied. “Parents and kids alike should never feel they have to say no to everything. But it is especially important to pay attention to portions when it comes to candy, since candy is nutrient-poor, calorie-dense, and promotes cavities.” Zied recommends allowing just four to six small candies a day, or two to three big ones (the equivalent of about 150 calories total).
#3: When in doubt, reach for a lolly. “I like to encourage people to eat lollipops,” says Zied. “They’re generally low in fat or fat free, have few calories, and take a long time to eat.” Hard candies work just as well.
#4: Limit sugar in other ways. “Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide discretionary calories or ‘extra calories’ that can come from added sugars, added fats, or both each day, based on recommended calorie intake,” says Zied. “A child’s daily allotment for added sugar and fat combined is about 150 to 300 calories. I think up to 150 calories from candy a day, at least for Halloween, is reasonable." So cut back on the cookies, ice cream, and other sweets until the trick or treat stash is depleted.
#5: Don’t be afraid to say no. You can’t teach delayed gratification without actually delaying it every now and then. Children respond to clear boundaries—set them.