The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

The Superpowers of Candy

Trick or Treat! 5 ways candy can improve your mood, brainpower, and health.

Halloween is the one time a year you can abandon candy guilt and consume a few sweets with pure, childlike enjoyment. To help you dip into the trick-or-treat bag without shame, I present five superpowers of candy. As you crunch your Kit Kat, chew you JuJuBes, and let the M&Ms melt in your mouth, contemplate these benefits of your Halloween treats:

1. People who regularly eat candy live longer than those who don't. A multi-decade study from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that modest candy consumption (one to three times a month) is associated with the greatest benefit, but even those with a daily habit lived longer than those who never indulged. This benefit could not be explained by other factors such as age, smoking, exercise, alcohol consumption, or weight.

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2. A shot of sugar can restore your willpower. Studies show that consuming sugar makes people perservere longer on difficult task, better able to focus, and more likely to delay gratification. Assuming candy isn't your biggest willpower challenge, a few pieces of candy corn might keep you on track.

3. Chewing gum can improve your mood, reduce stress, increase your mental focus, and block pain. Who knew a stick of Juicy Fruit could do so much? But several studies suggest the act of repetitive chewing shifts the state of your brain in many helpful ways. Areas related to attention and self-control become more active, while areas related to stress and pain processing become less active. Chewing gum also seems to increase serotonin levels, may explain why chomping boosts mood.

4. Chocolate may decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Family Heart Study analyzed the chocolate habits of 4970 participants aged 25-93 years. Those who regularly consumed chocolate had a lower risk of heart disease, and higher "doses" resulted in greater protection. Those who ate chocolate five or more times a week were 60% less likely to have heart disease. This relationship could not be accounted for by age, sex, family history, calorie intake, education, smoking, alcohol, exercise, or fruit and vegetable consumption.

5. Cotton candy can help you grow new blood vessels. OK, so this is one trick you can't try at home. But researchers at Cornell University and Cornell Medical Center are using cotton candy to create artificial blood vessels. They melt the sugar fibers into a network of strands with diameters similar to those of capillaries; a liquid is poured over the cotton candy network. Once the liquid solidifies, they place the whole structure in warm water, which dissolves the cotton candy inside. They're then left with a perfect mold to introduce the seed cells for new tissue and blood vessels. Amazing!

Happy Halloween everyone! Share your favorite treat in the discussion section. Mine: Nerds, and the vastly underrated Smarties--guess I go for the real brain food. :)

Studies cited:

1. Lee IM, & Paffenbarger Jr. R.S. (1998). Life is sweet: candy consumption and longevity. British Medical Journal, 317, 9.

2. Gailliot MT, Baumeister RF. (2007) The physiology of willpower: linking blood glucose to self-control. Pers Soc Psychol Rev, 11, 303-27.

3. Smith A (2010). Effects of chewing gum on cognitive function, mood and physiology in stressed and non-stressed volunteers. Nutr Neurosci,13, 7-16.

Kamiya K, Fumoto M, Kikuchi H, Sekiyama T, Mohri-Lkuzawa Y, Umino M, Arita H. (2010). Prolonged gum chewing evokes activation of the ventral part of prefrontal cortex and suppression of nociceptive responses: involvement of the serotonergic system. J Med Dent Sci, 57, 35-43.

4. Djoussé L, Hopkins PN, North KE, Pankow JS, Arnett DK, Ellison RC. 2010. Chocolate consumption is inversely associated with prevalent coronary heart disease: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study. Clin Nutr, Sep 19. [Epub ahead of print].

5. Leon M, Bellan LM, Singh SP, Henderson Peter W, Porri TJ, Craighead HG, & Jason A. Spector JA (2009). Fabrication of an artificial 3-dimensional vascular network using sacrificial sugar structures. Soft Matter, 5, 1354.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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