We are fast approaching one of the scariest holidays celebrated in our current culture. Halloween is of course filled with lots of ghosts, witches, and film characters, but the scariest part of Halloween is the sheer amount and focus on sugary treats.
Americans will spend an estimated $2.6 billion on candy during the Halloween season this year.1 In fact, the average Jack-O-Lantern bucket carries about 250 pieces of candy amounting to about 9,000 calories and around three pounds of sugar.2 And that is just the standard Jack-O-Lantern. Many people give their kiddos (or themselves) pillow cases to take around collecting even more candy…and sugar.
All kidding aside, that is a lot of candy and sugar which is really ghastly for you and your children’s overall heath. In fact, almost every chronic disease you can think of, heart disease, hypertension, dementia, cancer, type II diabetes, fatty liver disease, etc is considered to be preventable through healthy lifestyle habits. I've got a tummy ache just thinking about all that candy.4 What you eat is a big part of those lifestyle habits and sugar is something that humans do better keeping to a minimum.
Why? Well, a study published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine found a link between a high-sugar diet and a greater risk of dying from heart disease. In this 15-year study, people who took in 17% to 21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared with those who consumed 8% (or around 3.2 Tablespoons of sugar) of their calories as added sugar.
Now I can hear people say, “Well, you know Halloween candy is fun” Or “Kids can get away with eating the candy. It will not really hurt them.” Or my favorite, "I only let them have a few pieces each day."
So let us look at how sugar is affecting our young people. Do you know that type II diabetes was once considered an adult-only condition? Now however, type II diabetes is an increasing problem in children and young adults worldwide. Approximately every 12 out of 100,000 Americans under age 20 are diagnosed with type II diabetes, with the average age of diagnosis occurring at 14.3. Type II diabetes affects the entire body and sets the stage for other chronic health problems over the course of their entire life. The life time consequences can be profound and costly.
Obesity is another problem affecting our youth. Data from a 2015-2016 study shows that nearly 1 in 5 school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States is obese.5. Obese children are at higher risk of developing other chronic health conditions and diseases that can prevent them from participating in activities that broaden their learning and well-being. These include asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type II diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, anxiety and depression.6,7,8.
Sugar is a major driver for weight problems and more evidence suggests it can also drive mood and anxiety problems as well. In fact, over-consumption of sugar triggers certain brain chemicals to become imbalanced thus increasing the chances of experiencing depression and anxiety. Excess sugar also impacts dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure and is responsible for our feelings of reward. When an individual eats sugar, the brain produces huge surges of dopamine. This is similar to the way the brain reacts to the ingestion of substances like heroin and cocaine. Since addiction and mood disorders are closely associated, it may be that sugar plays a role in driving a person on an emotional roller-coaster. Sugar is also increasingly connected to cellular inflammation, and recent research is linking cellular inflammation as a likely culprit in the onset of depression and anxiety for all age groups.9
The sad part is that Halloween did not used to be all about candy and sugary treats. Halloween once looked very different from the candy collecting craziness of today. Trick-or-treating really did not come into fashion until the end of the 1930’s and it only became customary on the national scale in the late 1940’s. And even once the tradition of going around the neighborhood, knocking and begging for a treat got going, candy was not really on the list of handed-out booty. People frequently gave out coins, nuts, fruit, toys or trinkets, pencils, and occasionally homemade confections much more often than candy.
Candy only took flight in the mid-1950s. Trick-or-treating had been the tradition for several years at this point and candy producers saw a perfect marketing opportunity. It did not take much marketing either since candy is easy to buy, easy to handout, and very economical for hosts. Inexpensive candies became popular as major candy manufacturers began making one-bite candy bars and mini packets of candy pieces, or bags of candy corn. Candy was still not the only treat handled out, but it was making big inroads.
Even I can remember going out on Halloween night and getting bright pennies, fun finger puppets, erasers, pencils and the like (and I loved those little prizes). But by the late 70’s and early 80’s candy was the expected treat. Sadly, even as adults and parents object to the candy extravaganza, they do not see a way around it.
I’ve had about a zillion parents ask me what we hand out. We always have apples at the clinic for adults and children to enjoy on Halloween. I have given out apples to children we know that come to our house. And it is amazing to me how many of those children have instantly chowed down on the given apple because they were hungry and love a fresh apple.
I can hear all the fear and I agree. Of course we are not putting needles or blades into the apples we hand out, but if I were a parent I would error on the side of caution and toss it out if I did not know the host. But, why not give out good healthful treats when you can?
Here are some options that will not break the bank and might be cool enough to keep your windows from getting soaped. (which was once a common ‘trick’ done on Halloween.)
Brand new pennies – younger kiddos just love a shiny penny or two!
A Pencil – Colorful and crazy looking pencils are fun and useful. Buy in bulk and the price is actually very affordable.
Erasers – These can come in animal shapes, cars, and now emoji.
Toys – While something like a punch balloon might drive mom and dad a little batty, these things create hours of fun.
Mini Bounce Balls can be a hit with teenagers too.
The thing is candy is the tradition because people are choosing to support it. Why not support fun and a healthy lifestyle? Why not help children develop a love of imagination and play through custom and character? Let us all see Halloween as a holiday that is about interaction instead of how much candy can be amassed. Sometimes going backwards in tradition can be a good thing.
Hales CM, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2015–2016. NCHS Data Brief. 2017;288:1–8.
May AL, Kuklina EV, Yoon PW. Prevalence of cardiovascular disease risk factors among US adolescents, 1999−2008. Pediatrics. 2012;129(6):1035–1041.
Lloyd LJ, Langley-Evans SC, McMullen S. Childhood obesity and risk of the adult metabolic syndrome: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond). 2012;36(1):1–11
Singh AS, Mulder C, Twisk JWR, Van Mechelen V, Chinapaw MJM. Tracking of childhood overweight into adulthood: a systematic review of the literature. Obes Rev. 2008;9(5):474–488.
Kathi loves talking about health and how we all can make healthier options in our everyday life, including Halloween. She practices what Dr Dobelbower teaches his patients each and everyday and has found that a low to no added sugar lifestyle leaves her feeling balanced mentally, with lots of energy for hiking, dancing, and being active.