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Each year, candy makers sell more sugary goodies on Halloween than any other holiday, most of which is thrown out shortly thereafter. In a society where childhood obesity is a very real concern, the practice of trick-or-treating, more the treats themselves, has become an issue for many parents. There are many reasons to choose other alternatives to candy when picking out goodies for your trick-or-treaters.  As a physician who works with kids, I have this conversation in my practice every October.

Why is candy a bad choice?

Candy can be a poor choice for trick-or-treaters for a number of reasons. Let’s first look at the primary ingredient in most candy, sugar or a sugar derivative.  Whether the treat is chocolate, a hard candy, or another sweet treat, the primary ingredient is sugar or high fructose corn syrup. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 emphasizes a diet that is LOW in saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars.  Besides having very little nutritional value, these sugary foods are dense in calories. These extra calories then get processed and stored as fat within the body when they are not used. This leads to weight gain and obesity as well as the health complications associated with both.  Worse, sugar-containing products can be highly inflammatory, lead to the development of glucose intolerance, and be associated with short-term mood and attention changes.  See our cross-referenced article on reactive-hypoglycemia.

Dental Health

Consumption of excess sugar is also horrible for our dental health, which is associated with many other poor health outcomes. As you well know increased sugar intake can lead to cavities and tooth decay. Dental health is a great marker for our overall physical health and one of the many reasons to limit intake of processed sugars.

Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity has developed into an epidemic in this country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that “childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years”. In the year 2012, more than one third of US children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

In my practice, it’s not uncommon for me to meet with a family referred by the child’s school due inattention, hyperactivity, mood issues, or poor dietary choices.  I always make sure to ask about consumption of high fat, high sugar, and/or processed foods. These foods are very common and are high in calories and glycemic load. A sedentary lifestyle (television, video games, computer games etc.) is another topic that always warrants questions; around Halloween, many kids will munch on their candy “stashes” while playing video games or watching television after school. The combination of these behaviors plays an enormous role in the prevalence of childhood obesity today.

The CDC further states that children and adolescents who are obese are very likely to become obese adults. This makes them far more likely to experience negative health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer, and osteoarthritis. Excess body weight stresses the body’s natural processes and raises the risk of long-term chronic health problems.

Alternatives to Candy

Given the negative health consequences of excess sugar intake, it is important to consider alternatives when choosing goodies for your trick-or-treaters. With a little creativity there are a lot of different ideas that kids really like.

Stickers are very fun and versatile prizes that kids really enjoy. You can purchase bulk sheets of stickers very reasonably.

Erasers serve as another fun alternative to candy. You can find erasers in really funky shapes and colors.

Toothbrushes are a healthy choice over candy and believe it or not, kids really like getting a new toothbrush.  Parents are often excited about this option, too.

There are a lot Halloween-themed toys and prizes to consider as well; pencils, coloring books and crayons are among them.

Temporary tattoos are a hip, fun prize for older kids and prizes like play-doh, bubbles, and glow sticks are also popular.

If you’re set on providing snacks to your trick-or-treaters, consider a more healthful alternative to candy. Granola bars, with their whole grains, provide a much more nutritional punch over traditional candy. Small packs of pretzels or raisins are more healthful choices as well.

Choosing alternatives to handing out candy on Halloween will promote better health in our youngsters. With the prevalence of childhood obesity at all-time highs, efforts to reduce sugar intake represent a step in the right direction.  Halloween is a great time to set an example.

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