The scariest thing about Halloween might be – sugar

With all the candy and spooky fun, many kids love Halloween. But for parents, what should be scary is the amount of sugar their children may consume.

Generally children eat way too much sugar, said Dr. Erica Labar, a pediatrician with University of Louisville Physicians. Sugars are empty calories with no nutritional value, and can cause a range of health problems, from obesity to dental decay.

But parents don’t want to see their children miss out on Halloween and other special occasions. So how do they know how much is too much?

Dr. Labar points to guidelines from the American Heart Association on calorie intake.

“As a rule of thumb, sugars are meant to be used sparingly,” Dr. Labar said. “Added sugar means added calories. The amount of sugar you can have is based on the number of calories you should consume.”

She notes that preschoolers need about 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day, with added sugar limited to 16 grams a day – or no more than 4 teaspoons.

Kids age 4-8 need 1,600 calories a day, of which only 12 grams should be added sugar, or no more than 3 teaspoons. That’s a bit less than preschoolers because of this age group’s nutritional needs.  Because these children have so many nutritional requirements for growth, high-quality foods are particularly important.

For pre-teens and teens, the guideline is 1,800-2,000 calories a day, and no more than 20-32 grams, or 5-8 teaspoons, of added sugar. 

Cutting back on sugar doesn’t mean kids can’t still have fun. A better idea is to limit candy, cupcakes and other treats to special occasions. Like many other things in life, moderation is key.

“We want kids to have fun, and trick-or-treat is a special occasion many families look forward to,” Dr. Labar said. “Just don’t let them eat all the candy in one sitting. That will also prevent a tummy ache later.”

Other rules she recommends for Halloween are to only accept candy that is fully packaged and not homemade, and to go through all candy before giving it to children to ensure no packages are open and the candy has not been tampered with.

Drinks and sugar

A big way to cut down sugar in a child’s diet is to watch what they drink. Dr. Labar said many people just don’t realize how many calories and how much sugar drinks contain. For example, one 12-ounce Coca-Cola has 39 grams of sugar alone. And if a child drank just one serving of a sugary drink, like soda or Kool-Aid, every day for a year, that would be 50,000 calories, she said.

And it’s not just sports drinks and sodas that are loaded with sugar – fruit juices are just as bad. Even 100 percent, no-added-sugar juices still have lots of the sweet stuff.

“We recommend zero sugary drinks for kids,” Dr. Labar said. Instead, she recommends water or low-fat milk, or whole milk for kids under age 2. With a good, healthy diet, there is no need for added sugary drinks.

If parents want their kids to get the benefit of fruit, she recommends the real thing. Because fruits are less processed than juices, there are many more nutritional benefits, including more fiber.

But what about artificial sweeteners? Dr. Labar said that while they’ve been deemed safe for the general population, they should be used sparingly. “We don’t want kids to get used to the need for something sweet all the time,” she said.

The best thing parents can do to keep their child’s sugar intake in check is to “become label readers,” Dr. Labar said. “Flip it over and see how much sugar is in that particular item. It is surprising and can definitely be scary.”

Preventing Halloween-related injuries

Eating too much sugar isn’t the only hazard children face at Halloween. Doctors with UofL Physicians can talk about how parents can keep their children safe from trips and falls, burns and cuts. Proper attention to costume selection, decorations, lighting and visibility on the roads is key.

About University of Louisville Physicians


University of Louisville Physicians is the largest multispecialty physician practice in the Louisville region, with nearly 600 primary care and specialty physicians in more than 78 specialties and subspecialties. Our doctors are the professors and researchers of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, teaching tomorrow’s physicians and leading research into medical advancements.