10 Keys to a Healthier Candy Habit

Four years after sending this tweet, I can happily report that Halloween 2015 came and went sans stomachaches.

You might be thinking, "Welcome to adulthood, Kathleen! You are only about twenty years behind your peers on this one." To understand why this is victory worth noting, you may need a little history on my relationship with candy.

The Early Years

The scarcity principle dictates that things seem more valuable when their availability is limited. This was definitely the case for me with candy. It was a prize that I went to great lengths to get.Growing up, candy was way too scarce for my liking. My parents would say that I had more than enough candy but I strongly disagree and I believe my younger sister, Molly, will back me up on this important point.My next door neighbor became my candy dealer. He’d bring a cigar box with stockpiled candy over to my front porch and carefully price each piece. I have a clear memory of him holding up a mint Lindt truffle proudly, declaring it his best piece, and charging me $1 for it. It was delicious.After an unfortunate incident in which I ate pool chalk (which looks a lot like blue taffy), I vowed that as soon as I had money of my own, I'd buy as much candy as my heart desired.And that's basically how life went. Candy is inexpensive so as soon as I got my first job, the floodgates opened. Candy was now readily available and I was an excellent consumer.The first few years of total access were awesome but then the consequences started catching up with me. I got my first cavities, my metabolism slowed down, and I felt crummy after eating it.My relationship with candy became more conflicted. I still loved it but I was deeply frustrated by my lack of self-control around it.  Over the last two years, I have been researching the question of how to drink better without giving up alcohol entirely. A delightful byproduct of my research has been developing a happier relationship with my beloved candy.

Below are 10 key takeaways.

1. Quitting can be confidence-boosting

Back in 2008, I gave up candy for several months. Similarly, when I conceived of the Fresh Drinks Project, I gave up alcohol for six weeks. In both cases, I was happy with the results. I felt healthier, more energetic and focused, and proud of my self-discipline.When I started the candy detox, I had notions of giving up candy forever. When I told a friend that I'd given up candy, he asked, "Why? Candy is important to you." As silly as it sounds, he was totally right. I didn't just love candy because it tasted delicious... I loved it because I associated it with holidays, fun, childhood memories, and friendships. Once I thought about it, the pros of candy in my life outweighed the cons and I didn't want to give it up completely.However, the knowledge that I could cut candy out if I wanted was an important confidence booster as I experimented with candy moderation techniques.

2. Moderation was more challenging than cold-turkey but I decided candy was worth the effort

Naturally, I am what Gretchen Rubin would describe as an abstainer. It is easier for me to give something up entirely than navigate the many decisions that go into moderating my intake. As an example, I gave up meat for 11 years just to curb fast food consumption. Once I decided that keeping candy in my life was important, it took years of experimenting to find a happy medium. 

3. Tackling the negative outcomes

My first step in managing my candy problem was mitigating the negative outcomes. Once I'd had a few fillings, I decided I never again wanted to be on the receiving end of a dentist's drill. I started brushing my teeth every time I ate candy, which had the effect of reducing my consumption, especially in places like airplanes, where brushing was inconvenient. This technique is an example of an action trigger, described in Chip and Dan Heath's book Switch, where linking two habits together makes it easier and more automatic to keep the better habit - in my case, skipping candy if I could not immediately brush my teeth.

4. Putting the calories in perspective

For years, I tried to offset excessive candy consumption with ample exercise. In his book Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink illustrates the uphill nature of my approach.“

"For most people, it’s easier to eat a little less than to move a little more. Consider the Three Mile Donut. If we strapped on our track shoes, plugged in our iPod, and walked as quickly as possible for 30 to 40 minutes, we’d cover no more than three heart-pounding miles - at the very most. Now suppose after catching our breath we realized we were standing in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts. If we celebrate our workout with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and a chocolate frosted donut (360 calories), we would polish off more calories in a minute than the 275 we burned to get there.”

While I love exercise and it has countless benefits, using it to offset bad eating habits is pretty inefficient.

5. Analyzing what I actually loved about candy helped me make more deliberate choices

While I clearly have a sugar-tooth, deciding to reintroduce candy into my life was less about the candy itself than maintaining all the glorious things that went along with it! Candy was an accessory for many girls nights, it signaled the changes in the seasons, and visiting old-fashioned candy stores unfailingly invoked childhood nostalgia. Once I realized that what I really valued about candy was the ritual of selecting it and the shared experience of enjoying it, I began to skip candy when it didn't feel special, like the candy bowl in an office or a candy bar from the gas station.

6. Eating real food fuels self-control

One of my favorite discoveries was from the book Willpower: eating actually fuels willpower. Our brains rely on a steady flow of glucose in the bloodstream in order to make decisions throughout the day, and letting blood sugar get low has been linked to increases in impulsive behavior.

“As the body uses glucose during self-control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat - which is bad news for people hoping to use their self-control to avoid sweets. When people have more demands for self-control in their daily lives, their hunger for sweets increases. It is not a simple matter of wanting all food more -- they seem to be specifically hungry for sweets.”

Several experiments showed that a hit of sugar quickly improved self control. But while sugar worked in the lab, the authors recommended foods with low-glycemic index (vegetables, nuts, fruits, cheese, fish, meat and olive oil) to maintain steady self control.I never realized that by letting myself get too hungry I was simultaneously increasing my candy cravings and undermining my self discipline. Fortunately, eating when I’m hungry is the easiest resolution I’ve ever made.

7. Demystifying candy

Another thing that helped me stop obsessing over candy was the realization that it would probably never be scarce again. Intuitive eating experts call fear of scarcity "the last supper syndrome," in which the perception that a certain food will be unavailable down the road prompts cravings and overindulgence. (Greatist has an awesome account of a woman overcoming her last supper syndrome by surrounding herself with her favorite food, muffins.) In my own experience, once I gave myself permission to have candy, I began picking up a small amount during my weekly grocery run. While this made eating some candy more convenient, it cut down on the cycle of trying-to-resist, breaking-down, giving-in, and overdoing-it.

8. Removing guilt from the equation

It is pretty well-known that while guilt has its purpose, it can also warp behavior. Years ago, I was so compulsive about candy, I'd pick up a stash on my way home from most social events, finally feeling free to indulge in amounts that I deemed too excessive to eat in front of others. Once I came to terms with the fact that candy was my treat of choice and realized that, unlike smoking, no one really cares if you have a little candy habit, I got comfortable eating candy in public but ended up eating much less overall because I was no longer felt compelled to eat it every time I was alone.

9. Anticipating and planning for sugar cravings

Along with buying a little bit of candy, I started buying a lot more fruit and preempting my sugar cravings with natural sugars, which are healthfully accompanied with natural fiber. I'm a tad rebellious so find it easier to tell myself I'm going to proactively do something ("Eat a piece of fruit whenever you feel like sugar") than tell myself that I'm not allowed to do something ("No candy").

10. Defining what a healthy candy habit actually meant was game-changing

As I've been working on the Fresh Drinks Project, one of the big questions I've gotten is "what exactly do you mean by healthy drinking, is there even such a thing?" It is a fair point. While some studies show some health benefits in certain cases, our bodies treat alcohol as a toxin to be dispelled. Similarly, candy's nutritional value is nil. In both cases, the decision to consume the substance is based on a cost-benefit analysis that deems the upsides worth it. That said, once you've decided to engage in a behavior, whether it is drinking, eating candy or anything else, keeping your habit in a healthy range is possible.One of the most helpful frameworks I found for understanding whether a habit is in a healthy range was in an article called "From Use to Abuse: When Everyday Consumption Behaviors Morph Into Addictive Consumptive Behaviors." The authors identified four dimensions of the pre-addiction process, including:Time spent on the behavior (lower is better)

Enjoyment of the behavior (higher is better)

Degree of self-control exerted (higher is better)

Degree of negative consequences (lower is better)

The key takeaway for me was that enjoyment is a good thing, and diminished enjoyment is a warning sign. The shift from liking something to wanting it is a tipping point indicating that the  behavior has left the healthy range (and edged closer to the needing danger zone). This distinction helped me notice when I was  eating candy for the joy of it, and when I was eating it on autopilot, helping me to stay in the delightful liking zone.

So those are my ten tips for happier candy consumption. They are tools that have helped me curb my unhealthy habit, and I believe they can be applied successfully in a multitude of everyday behaviors.

I would love to hear from you. What are your favorite simple pleasures? And what do you do to make sure they stay in the healthy zone?