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Verified by Psychology Today

Halloween Candy and SAD

Daylight is waning, and many are experiencing carbohydrate cravings.

Key points

  • As the daylight hours grow shorter, many people experience changes in appetite, energy levels, and mood.
  • Known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, this condition makes it tough to resist the temptations of the winter holidays, like Halloween candy.
  • One solution involves reaching for healthier options when we get those carbohydrate cravings.

The counter at my local hardware store was crammed so full of Halloween candy that there was hardly any space for my two lightbulbs. “Starting early?" I commented as I fished for my credit card. "People want to buy Halloween candy as soon as the days seem to grow shorter," he told me. "They say they are going to save it for the Trick or Treaters, but I have a feeling they start eating it themselves,” he said.

Might there be a connection between the later sunrises and earlier sunsets at the beginning of fall and the shelves full of Halloween candy in the supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores, and yes, even hardware stores?

Seasonal Affective Disorder

As we go through this season of diminishing daylight hours, some of us may experience subtle yet real changes in our mood, energy levels, appetite, social engagement, motivation, and concentration. It becomes harder to exercise with the same intensity or duration as early in the summer or to exercise at all. Salads and fruits are still desirable items at a meal, but eating a large salad with some protein (salmon, chicken) as the main course somehow does not seem as appealing as a bowl of pasta.

And we begin to feel somewhat less tolerant and patient when confronted by frustrating situations, annoying people, unpleasant news. Recorded voices that ask you to hold for 20 (minutes) and play elevator music while you are doing so sometimes require gritted teeth to prevent yelling at the computer. Whatever placid, patient approach we had when we were frustrated early in the summer seems to have vanished.

To be sure, one can experience these unpleasant emotions any time of the year; they do not come with an expiration date. But our tolerance seems to erode with the erosion of daylight and might be an early sign of SAD, aka Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD comes with several disagreeable symptoms: the need to sleep excessively, unexplained fatigue, difficulty in remaining focused and interested in work, home, social activities, irritability, anger, depression, as well as a persistent craving for sweets. By late fall and early winter, some people will find these symptoms are having a significant impact on their work performance, interpersonal interactions, willingness to exercise, mood, and weight. It is not unusual for someone who is affected by winter darkness to gain 10-40 pounds.

The high cost of Halloween Candy

And (is it a coincidence?) Halloween candy, all that sugar and fat, is blatantly displayed in the stores as SAD-associated sweet cravings begin to be experienced. My supermarket confronts me with an entire wall worth of packaged candy as soon as I walk in. For anyone who is experiencing the smallest of sweet cravings, it is almost impossible to walk past the bags of candy without buying some.

We tell ourselves it is to give away on Halloween, but we know better. SAD is urging us to eat sweets. The cravings that were controllable all spring and summer have now returned.

The need to eat more carbohydrates in association with the increasing duration of darkness may be related to alterations in brain serotonin activity caused by lack of light. The cravings for carbohydrates seem to arise when serotonin levels and/or activity decreases. The association is often overlooked, but it has a neurochemical basis.

Serotonin in the brain is made from tryptophan, an amino acid that enters the brain only after a carbohydrate is eaten. Thus when the craving for carbohydrates (sugar is a carbohydrate) is satisfied by consuming something sweet or starchy, more serotonin will be made. The only time this will not happen is if a protein is eaten along with the carbohydrate (e.g., a turkey sandwich). And when serotonin levels and activity increase, a better mood returns, and the carbohydrate cravings disappear.

Thus, if eating carbohydrates will take the edge off some of the symptoms of SAD, why not eat a handful of Halloween size candy bars? Popping them in the mouth takes less time than making a bowl of rice or even a bowl of instant oatmeal. And like squirrels packing their nests full of nuts, the savvy SAD shopper can load up on bags of Halloween candy treats and hope they last through the fall (or until Christmas candy appears in the market).

Unfortunately, there is a high cost and minimal benefit to eating Halloween candies to satisfy SAD carbohydrate cravings. It is necessary to eat about 25-30 grams of carbohydrate to set in motion the process that delivers tryptophan into the brain. To do this, one would have to eat seven mini-Snicker bars, 300 calories, or four mini Twix bars, 200 calories, or seven Hershey kisses, 200 calories. And who has the self-discipline to count out the Hershey Kisses or mini chocolate bars when the urge to eat carbohydrates is felt? Those with such discipline probably won’t buy the candy to begin with or will put it away to be opened only when the first Trick or Treater comes to the door.

Key takeaways

The symptoms of SAD may last for months, gradually disappearing as the days grow longer in the early spring. Exposure to special lights (sunboxes) or antidepressants has been found effective in reducing the severity of the symptoms, but the carbohydrate cravings may persist. Fortunately, eating small amounts of starchy carbohydrates will produce the same increase in serotonin as eating Halloween candy and provide nutrients, not just calories.

The most convenient snacks are on the cereal aisle; slightly more than a half-cup of Oatmeal squares, for example, provides about 25 grams of carbohydrate and has only 110 calories. Cheerios, which this month also come pumpkin-flavored, are similarly low in calories. And following a plant-based diet that includes sweet and white potatoes, squashes, rice, quinoa, lentils, and polenta will also satisfy the SAD-linked urge for carbohydrates... And put the Halloween candy on a shelf too high to reach without a ladder.