Autumn is a great time for costume parties, scary movies, family gatherings — and spontaneous sugar binges. Indeed, come autumn, sugary candy, drinks and sweets are everywhere: candy bowls and home-baked treats appear in offices, while candy proliferates in households with trick-or-treating children. The ubiquity of sweets is enough to make even the most health-conscious among us slip a little.
But if you don't often eat candy, you might wonder if a spontaneous binge is something to actually worry about. Is "borrowing" ten or twelve Reese's from your kids' Halloween bag really all that bad for your body if you avoid high amounts of processed sugar for most of the rest of the year? And what is actually happening inside our guts when we do eat too much sugar once in a while?
Salon spoke with a few different doctors and health experts to answer these questions — among them, Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco. Talking to Lustig, it quickly became clear that he perceives scarfing down candy as feeding an addiction, not just some harmless pastime.
"If you binge on sugar you are activating the brain dopamine system, which can set off a sugar craving cascade that can make you want more and more."
"If you take the alcoholic, how many drinks before they end up under the table?" Lustig asked. When I replied that it depends on the drink, Lustig exclaimed "Right? Depends on the drink! Depends on the alcoholic: How big they are, how much they weigh. It depends on a lot of things."
Lustig completed his analogy: An alcoholic may require more drinks before they feel intoxicated, but it actually will take fewer drinks to cause lasting damage to their body because their previous drinking has already led to so much harm. By contrast, "the person who is alcohol-naïve, how many drinks can that person drink before he damages his liver? Probably about ten."
The alcoholism-sugar addiction analogy offers a useful framework for understanding the dangers of sugar binging, but it doesn't get at the core of what happens when we eat a large amount of sugar. The underlying issue is that when you eat too much sugar from foods like soft drinks and candy, your body pays a price. Perhaps the worst damage is the accumulation of visceral fat, a type of deep body fat that accumulates near vital organs like the liver, intestines, stomach and arteries. Sugar consumption is linked to everything from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes to fatty liver disease and dental cavities.
Specifically eating too much fructose (the type of sugar in most fruit) can create resistance to leptin, a hormone that tells your body when it needs to stop eating. As such, eating sugar can quickly become a self-sustaining cycle, as your body consumes more and more of the potentially deadly substance while enjoying the dopamine hits that accompany tasting something delicious.
Yet in theory one can resist fate by practicing moderation. Is there a gray area? How much damage can be done to the body by periodic bouts of binge eating sugary treats?
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.
Dr. James DiNicolantonio — the Associate Editor of British Medical Journal's (BMJ) Open Heart and a cardiovascular research scientist and doctor of pharmacy at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City — spoke with Salon by email to answer that question.
"The acute effects when binging on a large amount of sugar can be fructose malabsorption and gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pains, bloating, diarrhea, et cetera," DiNicolantonio offered. He also noted "inflammation in the intestines" and "inflammation in the kidneys," as byproducts of a sugar binge.
So is there a safe way to enjoy Halloween candy? "Eat the candy in moderation," DiNicolantonio advised.
DiNicolantonio is not the only expert worried about sugar binging around this time of year. Dr. Nicole Avena, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai Medical School and a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University, wrote the book "Why Diets Fail: Because You're Addicted to Sugar." As she explained to Salon by email, it is difficult to say with certainty how any one individual will be affected by a sugar binge because so many different variables comes into play. For instance, a common dread is no longer being able to fit into one's clothing because of a single night of culinary decadence. Where does that limit exist?
"The problem of course is that no one eats just one [piece of candy], especially not kids, and especially not on Halloween."
"It is hard to say for sure because binge sizes can differ, and metabolic rates, etc also vary between individuals," Avena explained. "Based off of the research, I would say about .16 lbs per day, which can add up to 1.1 lb a week. No visible alterations. But note that most people binge on sugar more than once per year — it is easy to overdo it. Just look at the amount of sugar in some popular beverages: a grande Pumpkin Spice Latte has 50 grams of sugar — which is the equivalent of more than a few pieces of Halloween candy."
Like DiNicolantonio, Avena rattled off a list of health problems that ensue even from one night of sugar binging.
"Poor digestive health/indigestion, poor gut microbiome diversity, poor skin health," Avena told Salon. "Also, if you binge on sugar you are activating the brain dopamine system, which can set off a sugar craving cascade that can make you want more and more."
Avena argued that moderation is key, but emphasized that "moderation is a subjective word. I say eat two to three small pieces max, and try to opt for lower sugar options.You can also eat your candy alongside a protein, making your blood sugar spike less."
Lustig had a specific portion size recommendation for what's considered safe: "if you are just a standard kid or a standard adult, then 25 to 37.5 grams" of sugar is what one can safely consume in terms of Halloween candy. "That's basically six to nine teaspoons of added sugar is the maximum," he said. "And after that, you will do damage in two ways," namely by causing liver fat which inhibits proper liver function and by "glycation," or a process that results in cellular and metabolic dysfunction."
"Six to nine teaspoons — basically we're talking about the equivalent of two candy bars there," Lustig advised. "The problem, of course, is that no one eats just one [piece of candy] — especially not kids, and especially not on Halloween."