Episode 57: Sugar Intake During Spooky Season with Alyssa Ramuscak

In this week’s episode, we are delighted to have Alyssa Ramuscak, a research Registered Dietitian at SickKids Research Institute and a PhD student in Applied Human Nutrition join us to discuss sugar intake during Halloween. Alyssa shares helpful tips in managing sugar intake during Halloween, while ensuring children are having an enjoyable and healthier experience. Tune in for tricks, treats, and mindful sweets strategies.




Healthy Habits, Happy Homes Podcast

Season 6, Episode 3

Guest: Alyssa Ramuscak



Marciane Any  00:05

Hello, Welcome to the Healthy Habits, Happy Home’s podcast, hosted by the Guelph Family Health Study.


Tamara Petresin  00:14

If you’re interested in the most recent research and helpful tips for healthy, balanced living for you and your family, this podcast is for you. In each episode, we will bring you topics that are important to your growing family and guests who will share their expertise and experience with you.


Marciane Any  00:31

Our quick tips will help your family build healthy habits for a happy home.


Tamara Petresin  00:35

Welcome back to the Healthy Habits, Happy Homes Podcast. I’m Tamara.


Marciane Any  00:44

And, I’m Marciane.


Tamara Petresin  00:47

And today we’re excited to have a returning podcast guest, Alyssa Ramuscak, join us. Alyssa is a Research Registered Dietitian at SickKids Research Institute. She’s also currently a PhD student whose research focuses on “Just In Time” mobile health interventions. Today, she’s here to talk to us about navigating times where sugar intake may be higher like around Halloween. [spooky laugh] Welcome back to the podcast Alyssa. How have you been since last time we spoke?


Alyssa Ramuscak  01:15

Thanks so much for having me back on the podcast. When we last spoke, I had just finished up my Master’s of Science and Applied Human Nutrition and started working with the Children’s Celiac Clinic at SickKids Hospital. And now, I’m back at Guelph pursuing a PhD. I am continuing to work at the SickKids Research Institute with the celiac team. But I’m also working as a Research Dietitian for a study investigating a real food, plant-based, commercialized formula for children who are tube-fed.


Marciane Any  01:43

Wow, that sounds very interesting. I’m excited to hear more in the future about, like, what you’re learning in that research study. And, I know we’re really excited to still have you. So, that’s exciting that you’re going to be starting your PhD soon, as well. We’re excited to be talking with you today, again, and we wanted to do something a bit different. We’ve had multiple episodes on the podcast about sugar intake and the health effects of excess sugar intake, as well as provided some tips to mitigate that. So, if you haven’t listened to that, be sure to check out Episode 43 about sugar intake in kids and teens, and also Episode 51 about sugar intake during pregnancy. But, today we wanted to focus more on how to approach children’s sugar intake, especially because Halloween is around the corner. So, our first question to you is sugar inherently bad?


Alyssa Ramuscak  02:39

Sugar sure is a bittersweet topic, but not all sugar is a sour deal for our health. When it comes to sugar there are two common types we like to refer to: natural sugar and added sugar. Sugar that is found in foods like vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy and dairy products would be considered natural sugars. As we know, consuming a balanced diet with these foods is good for our health. Not only do these foods provide a good source of energy for our brain and our body to perform its daily function,  these foods also offer an abundance of important nutrients like fibre, vitamins and minerals from plant foods, and calcium and protein from dairy foods. Now, added sugar is a little bit different. Added sugars are sugars that are added to foods and drinks during processing or preparation to make them taste sweeter or increase their shelf life. Classic examples would be foods like cookies and cakes, fizzy pops and candy. But, some lesser known items would be foods like canned soups, condiments like ketchup, flavoured yogurts, and breakfast cereals. Unfortunately, as Canadians we tend to eat more added sugar than what is recommended. According to the World Health Organization, we should aim for an eighth intake of less than 10% of our total daily energy intake. That’s about 50 grams of added sugar if you consume 2000 calories per day. While it can sometimes be hard to wrap our heads around numbers and recommendations when it comes to food, following some of those fundamental tips like: eating balanced meals and snacks with Canada’s Food Guide in mind; making water our drink of choice; and being informed consumers by reading nutrition facts, labels, can all help to reduce the amount of added sugar we eat each day.


Tamara Petresin  04:25

Thank you so much for distinguishing between all those terms, Alyssa. I feel like it’s so easy to get confused between all the different terms because there are so many, so, it’s really nice to know what we’re talking about and, kind of, have that clarification. And, of course, we want to limit our added-sugar intake and be mindful as we do know that excessive added-sugar intake is not beneficial for our health. But, like he said, too, it’s very challenging to wrap our heads around those numbers and recommendations. I really like how you pointed out following those fundamental tips. It really makes it a lot easier for us to be mindful of the amount of added sugar that we eat each day. So, how can parents balance being mindful of children’s sugar intake this Halloween while also fostering a healthy view on sugar?


Alyssa Ramuscak  05:08

Yeah, food is so much more than nourishment. Foods offer an opportunity to gather and create memories. Having sugar once in a while won’t affect our overall health. And, celebrating Halloween is no exception. It’s okay to give your child unrestricted access to candy on Halloween. In fact, it may be a good learning opportunity for them to practice mindful eating and listen to their tummies’ hunger and fullness cues. However, when Halloween has passed, it’s important to remember your role as a parent when it comes to the division of responsibility and eating and feeding. As a parent, you’re responsible for what foods you offer to your kids, when, and where. Whereas, it’s your child’s role to know if they will eat, and how much. Don’t be afraid to offer Halloween candy and treats with regular meals and snacks. Potato chips with lunch. Yum. Crushing a chocolate bar into Greek yogurt. Sweet. Making a granola mix without pumpkin seeds and gummies. Sounds delish. Incorporating the Halloween candy into regular meals and snacks helps your kid find a tasty balance and develop a healthy mindset about food. After all, Halloween is just one day out of the whole year. Most kids will get bored and forget about their Halloween candy after a couple of weeks. So, enjoy the spooky fun and treats. And remember, it’s all part of the Halloween experience.


Marciane Any  06:24

Oh, I love that. I love the reminder about, you know, food being so much more than just being nourishing because it really does — so many of our core memories are centered on food, as we’ve talked about throughout, you know, the seasons of the podcast in different ways. And, so, I really appreciate you bringing that up and, then, even just reminding parents: what is their role when it comes to feeding, and then what the child’s role is, as well. Our next question is:  the language we use is so important. So, how does assigning moral labels to food, like “good” or “bad,” impact children, parents and the relationship between them?


Alyssa Ramuscak  06:27

 It’s important to call food what it is:  “apples are apples, Smarties are Smarties.” When we begin to attach moral labels to food, like “good food,” “bad food,” “junk food,” we attach value to that food, rather than how eating that food makes us feel. This can create an unhealthy relationship with food and potentially lead us to internalize the foods we eat. For example, if we start to label potato chips as a “bad food,” when we eat them, we may begin to think or feel like we’re bad for eating them. Keep the language of food neutral around kids. And, I would even encourage you to keep the language of food neutral around other adults. You really never know when a child may be listening.


Marciane Any  07:50

That is so true. Thank you so much for sharing about that. It reminds me of something we’ve even spoken about in our last episode about nurturing healthy relationships with food with Olivia Brooks, a Registered Dietician. So, go check that out if you haven’t taken a listen. But, you know, how assigning morality to food doesn’t really make sense. Because, just like you said, like an apple is an apple, um, you know, chocolate’s chocolate. And, when we start assigning morality to the food, it can really disrupt a healthy relationship with food. And, I know, for myself, that’s something that I’ve had to really unlearn over the years and have to continue to really unlearn, because it really does just, kind of, relate, at least to myself, to having unhealthy dietary patterns and just unhealthy view on, like, food and nutrition, in general. So, I think that’s just so important. And, unfortunately, it really started in childhood. So, you know, you mentioning, being careful about what we say, as adults, even around each other, and especially around kids is so, so important. Because, you know, those things tend to — we can really carry those into adulthood.


Tamara Petresin  09:04

Yeah, for sure. It is one of those things that, like, we really don’t know when there’s little ears listening. And, that’s something that Olivia, In our previous episode, talked about, as well. So, it’s just something to be mindful of. And, of course, too, with Halloween, it’s, you know, trick or treating. It’s this, like, big event, every kid is super excited to go and to do this. So, are there things that parents can do on or even leading up to Halloween? Or, you know, other holidays, as well, that tend to come with high added-sugar intakes, to minimize excessive added-sugar intake?


Alyssa Ramuscak  09:36

Yeah, I would encourage that families focus on the fall-themed or non-food aspects of Halloween. You know, go pumpkin picking, carve pumpkins, save the pumpkin seeds for fun, roasted treat. Let your child’s imagination run wild by brainstorming and crafting homemade costumes, or gather around to watch Halloween-movie classics. In the days leading up to Halloween, come up with a Halloween game-plan with your trick-or-treaters discuss when and how long you’ll be haunting the neighbourhood for treats, what size Halloween bucket they’ll be carrying, and whether they will be able to munch on candy during or after trick or treating. Having these conversations in the days leading up to Halloween can help create structure and manage expectations. And, of course, on the day of Halloween, continue to offer balanced meals and snacks that follow Canada’s Food Guide. You may even want to make these meals and snacks special by adding your own spooky twist. For example, you may like to do Jack-o-lanterns, stuffed bell peppers for dinner, pumpkin whole wheat pancakes for breakfast, or create a “spooktacular” snack board with cheese strings, witch brooms and ghostly apple slices.


Marciane Any  10:47

I love that. Thank you so much for sharing that. I remember, you know, a lot of different aspects besides just the candy growing up, like, I still remember carving pumpkins with my mom. And, I remember the first time we ever did it. I was, like, six or seven and I still very — actually no, I think it was five. Yeah, because I’m remembering the house that we lived in. And, so, I vividly remember that. I remembered how slimy, like, the pumpkin seeds and the inside of the pumpkin was, and it just is, like, a core memory that will never leave me. And, then remembering watching like “Halloween Town” and “Hocus Pocus,” like, that is still traditions that I do today. Because, those movies are classics. Just like you mentioned, there are so many other like fall themes and  non-food aspects of Halloween that are so much fun that we can focus on, too


Tamara Petresin  11:39

You just sharing your stories you, Marciane, was, like, bringing me back. I mean, “Halloween Town” is a staple, like, that is a movie that I watch every year, without exception. And, so, just kind of like some of these traditions that almost get started like naturally, too. There’s always so much talk around, like, Halloween candy and sugar treating, but there’s actually so much more to Halloween and pumpkins and all of that stuff. Pumpkin seeds, I love. I love, like, that feeling of like carving a pumpkin and getting the pumpkin seeds out. Oh, and there’s such a good snack, as well. So, there’s definitely a lot of fun tips that are not focused around food, which is great, as well. Now, I imagine one thing that is really important to a lot of parents is the want to prevent overconsumption of candy, but, also, at the same time, not creating restrictive behaviours. So, what are some effective ways to handle, store and manage a child’s candy stash, especially when they are receiving large amounts during Halloween and when trick or treating?


Alyssa Ramuscak  12:36

I can totally understand that many parents may worry about their kids consuming too much sugar around Halloween. Some parents may even feel inclined to restrict or even avoid Halloween candy altogether. However, restricting kids from sugar around Halloween only deprives them of the enjoyment of the holiday, and the potential learning opportunities that come with it. It can also lead to an unhealthy relationship with food where your child may only crave the restricted foods more. Similar to communicating a Halloween game plan with your child, have open conversations with them about their candy stash and how it will be stored and handled. You may want to suggest to your child that they sort their Halloween candy into a pile that they like and dislike. Research initiatives in your community with your child where they could donate their disliked candy, either to a food drive, retirement homes, or at a hospital. Doing so can help with making that candy stash feel not so overwhelming. And, it can also be a great opportunity for your child to feel a greater sense of belonging in their community. After Halloween, talk to your child about a central location where the candy will be stored, like in the kitchen cupboard. This way you don’t run the risk of your child grazing on their candy throughout the day, and disrupting their appetite for regular meals and snacks. You may also want to suggest freezing some of their candy, like chocolate bars, to be used at special events like a sleepover with friends or a movie night with family. It’s a “fang-tastic” way to prolong the enjoyment of Halloween candy and encourage your child to share it with others.


Tamara Petresin  14:09

Thank you so much for sharing all of those tips, Alyssa. I feel like there’s some really good ones in there. I have never even thought of freezing some of that candy. Like, that’s kind of a cool and different take and a different idea. And, I’m trying to remember, too, when I was younger, like, I don’t think that I ever, like, got through a full trick-or-treating load. Like, I feel like it was always just, kind of, like, “Oh you know,” for when it’s new and, like, just after you trick or treated it it’s all very, like, novel and exciting. But, then after a while it was, kind of like, “Whatever.” So, these ideas are actually really great and really practical. So, thanks and definitely unique, as well.


Marciane Any  14:44

Definitely, I really appreciate these tips. It’s so interesting how open conversation keeps coming up. And, like, in all of our episodes and, again, just reinforces how it’s so much more than food and food really is central to a lot of our, like, human experiences and just our relationships with one another, but you gave some really cool tips. And, as someone who, kind of, had a, like, non-traditional, I guess, relationship with Halloween, like, I wasn’t really allowed to celebrate it and I never went trick or treating, but my family still tried to at least make us feel like we could still enjoy the season. So, they would get us, like, a bag of candy, or we’d get some from school. And, these tips still apply, you know, definitely, sorting the food and donating it is such a cool idea. Because, you know, some of that candy and food did get wasted. So, even from like a food-waste perspective, that’s, like, so helpful. So, thank you for all of these tips. To close out the podcast, we like to give parents three take-home tips. So, what are three take-home tips about navigating high-sugar holidays /seasons, like Halloween, that you can share with our listeners?


Alyssa Ramuscak  16:07

My first tip would be to remember Halloween only happens one day out of the year. Allow your kids to enjoy it. My second tip is have open and continued conversations with your child about their candy stash. This can help manage expectations. And, lastly, foster balance. Use the division of responsibility to offer candy with meals and snacks. Following these tips, and the suggestions provided today, can help you and your child enjoy the sweetness of Halloween while keeping their sugar intake in check.


Tamara Petresin  16:37

So true. Honestly, even that part of it managing expectations, I feel like that gets lost a lot in the messaging. And, it’s so important because then, you know, kids know what to expect out of Halloween and out of trick or treating and that experience. So, I think it’s great how you’ve shared that tip and gone in depth with that a little bit, too, and the reasoning behind it because it makes a lot of sense how that could change the whole experience and alter it. So, thank you so so much Alyssa for taking the time to chat with us about sugar intake during this Halloween season. Your knowledge and your insights are always so very much so appreciated. And, especially these tips you provided are super practical and great for our families. And, we hope to talk to you again soon.


Alyssa Ramuscak  17:17

Looking forward to it. Thanks again.


Marciane Any  17:20

Thank you for joining us again on the Healthy Habits Happy Homes podcast. We hope our listeners enjoyed this episode and we’ll see you next time.