Old trick or treaters

Why Do We Celebrate Every Holiday with Sugar?

Happy Halloween! Remember slogging around the neighborhood wearing a plastic mask full of sweat and spit just to score a bag of cheap candy? Sure, a few houses handed out full-size Snickers, Reeses, or Butterfingers, but there was always one house that dropped a pencil or dental floss into your jack-o-lantern bucket. Those people usually ended up on the trick side of the evening.

Fun fact: Do you know that trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling have a similar origin story? Both practices sprouted from the days when poor people would visit the homes of the wealthy, demanding a gift to go away. We’ll stand at your door and sing until you pay us to leave. Ah, the good old days.

Today, Halloween is more of a commercial tradition. This year, the planned Halloween expenditures in the United States exceed $10 billion, with over 25% of that expense on candy. The scary part is that Halloween is only our third-ranked sugar consumption event behind Easter and Valentine’s Day. We’ll spend over $8.75 billion on candy for only three days this year.

Imagine how other life events like birthdays and anniversaries add to our sugar intake.

Sugary celebrations

Our brains have what is called a sugar reward system. This system is a network of brain circuitry connecting dopamine-producing cells that make us feel good whenever we eat sugar. When we celebrate, we do feel-good activities like drinking alcohol, eating sweets, and communing with people.

As children, adults rewarded our good behavior with sugar. If you’re a good boy in the grocery store, you can get some candy at the checkout. Do all your chores this week, and we’ll go for ice cream on Saturday.

After all this reward training, it’s no wonder that we view sugar as celebratory. Let’s party with hits of dopamine! Research notes that the mere expectation of a pleasurable activity releases dopamine in tiny doses in preparation for the big party.

Sugar history

Eating sweets at celebrations isn’t a new thing. Every culture and religion throughout history has traditions using some sweet treat or another.

The problem we have today is that these traditions began when sugar was expensive and hard to get. Most people primarily ate the natural sugars in seasonal fruits and vegetables or honey. It was only in the 20th century when sugar became a commonplace ingredient.

The tipping point of our sugary celebrations began in 1957 when Richard Marshall and Earl Kooi developed the high-fructose corn syrup found in almost every processed food on our grocery store shelves.

High-fructose corn syrup was a game-changer in the world of food production. Manufacturers can now cheaply produce candy and hundreds of thousands of processed foods on a massive scale. We eat sugar at every meal, and it’s likely a safe bet that we have some candies, cakes, or cookies waiting for us at home right now.

Sugar is everywhere, but we still celebrate with it as if it’s a treat.

Breaking tradition

Nowadays, celebrating with sugar is the equivalent of putting a $5 bill in a birthday card for Bill Gates. We probably need the sugar less than Bill needs the money.

Shouldn’t a celebration involve scarcity? It’s a holiday, so you get a day off work, eat a special dinner, and have to talk to that crazy cousin you only see at holidays and funerals. You wouldn’t say, “It’s my birthday! I hope I can work overtime and score some gas station sushi.”

What about our hits of dopamine? It’s not a party without our dopamine.

Well, if rewarded continuously, the result becomes routine and grows less rewarding. Sugar affects our dopamine levels similarly to cocaine, and many of us are sugar addicts with muted dopamine responses from overuse. The more sugar we eat, the more it takes to get us high.

More rewarding

What should we do? We’re surely not going to take a pass on mom’s famous pecan pie or free birthday dessert at our special restaurant.

If you want to enjoy your favorite treats on a special occasion or holiday, do it. What we need to remember is that every day is not a holiday. We’re adults, so there’s no reward for being a good boy in the store or mowing the grass.

We stopped wearing a costume and canvassing the neighborhood for candy a long time ago. Maybe we should quit eating like a twelve-year-old boy too.

Let’s stop being tricked by the treats.


Take care, even down there.

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