The ubiquitous candy corn.

Preventing the Halloween Nightmare: Rethinking Halloween for Health

All over the country, neighborhoods are taking out the spooky decorations, supermarkets are stocking their shelves with miniature candies, and costume stores are selling-out of the time-honored favorites of witches, goblins, and superheroes.

Halloween can be a bonding ritual for parents with their kids: shopping for or making costumes that bring children joy is something that everyone looks forward to. Most children are imagination machines, and Halloween affords them the opportunity to step out of their day-to-day and adopt an alter-ego: Superhero for a day. Add to that the out-of-the-ordinary nighttime ritual of walking door-to-door with the promise of candy at every stop, and it all adds up to a holiday filled with magic.

But the creative ritual part of the holiday, where children are free to imagine and be playful outside of the normal bounds of play, actually ends up taking a back-seat to the focus on amassing large amounts of candy.

The original intention of “Trick or Treat” faded long ago. It originally meant that the visitor would play a trick on the homeowner if they weren’t given a treat. By the time I was trick or treating in the late 1960s to early 1970s, there was no mention of trickery (in my teens, “cabbage night” was a different story).

According to Wikipedia, Halloween has Celtic pagan roots, marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter. It was also a celebration of the dead, including saints (hallows). Connecting with the dead was seen to be easier at this time of year, halfway between equinox and solstice, as it was thought to be a liminal time when the boundaries between the physical world and spiritual world are more easily passed through.

Alas, any reverence associated with Halloween is long gone. In the past 60 years, Halloween has been massively commercialized into an epic nightmare of waste and sugar indulgence.

Halloween has become a time of sanctioned candy consumption, where kids exercise a sense of youthful entitlement, hording their booty to be metered out at desired intervals. Candy sales are expected to reach 2.6 billion dollars giving retailers a big financial incentive to get-in on the windfall. [Adding in costumes, decorations and greeting cards turns Halloween into an 8+billion-dollar event.]

But after all the ghouls are gone, are gone, Halloween becomes a nightmare horror for your child’s health.

We eat too much sugar, and its worse for us than we previously thought.

Sugar and refined carbohydrates deteriorate our health in two key ways: through fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin (now linked to Alzheimer’s Disease), and through the mechanism of inflammation in the gut (now linked to heart disease, among many, many other diseases caused by prolonged systemic inflammation).

Most Americans eat sugar all day long — how could they not, with 74% of packaged food in the supermarket containing added sugar! When you eat sugar and/or refined carbohydrates all day, it creates a constant fluctuations of your blood sugar, which can lead to insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders. Those same fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin, and are linked to plaque build-up in the brain, leading researchers to call Alzheimer’s “Type 3 Diabetes.”

The other way that sugar and refined carbohydrates rob us of our health is through the inflammation it creates in the gut, which travels throughout our system, impacting our hearts, brains, and multiple other systems in the body. Our guts are home to billions of bacteria that play an important role in immunity, among many other things. Collectively, the bacteria that live in and on us is called the microbiome; its health is paramount to our overall health.

Some of the many conditions and diseases caused or worsened by sugar consumption may not show symptoms for 20-30 years (similar to smoking), making deferring of a pleasure a hard sell for many people. Some of those conditions include:

  • Heart disease
  • Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia
  • Depression
  • Overweight and Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Cancers

And then there are the negative symptoms people experience now from consuming to much sugar:

  • Brain fog and poor mental focus
  • Energy fluctuations throughout the day
  • Poor sleep
  • Poor skin
  • Achy joints
  • Moodiness
  • Tooth decay

For all these reasons, it is best not to make sweet treats a regular feature of childhood.

Can there be a Health-Friendly version of Halloween??

Re-envisioning a healthy Halloween

Little by little, family by family we can improve the health of our communities by making small and determined choices. To follow are some ideas to increase the positive parts and minimize the negative parts of this super-fun holiday.

  • Overall, try shifting the focus of Halloween to a creative, experiential event. Invent and make a costume with your child’s input. Consider turning your house (or a friend’s house) into a haunted mansion, fun house, or magical garden.
  • If it is too late to start deflecting the expectation of a candy windfall with your child(ren), consider creating a “buy-back” ritual. For every piece of candy they give you, you will give them a dime, quarter, or credit towards a desired toy, or just exchange for non-food treats (see list below).
  • Talk to your child’s teachers about having non-candy/sugar Halloween rituals in the classroom. Mask-making could be a good in-class activity instead of focusing on the candy.
  • If you have a community or neighborhood listserv, bring up the subject and suggest neighbors offer non-sugar treats in addition to sugary ones. This is becoming more common because of awareness to allergies.
  • Find candy alternatives — an important feature of allergy-aware safety in the community. The Teal Pumpkin Project has a focus on non-food Halloween treats as millions of kids have food allergies. They suggest offering food AND non-food items, so kids can fully participate.
  • Keep candy treats separate from non-food treats. If you decide to offer candy as well, make sure the two are kept separate. On Halloween night, if you’re offering both food and non-food treats, you can simply present both bowls to every child. This way, the child with food allergies can feel even more included (versus them having to say they have food allergies). You may also be surprised about how many kids pick a non-food treat!
  • Here is a list of just many non-food ways to give out fun treats:

1. Colorful glass marbles

2. Stickers

3. Glow sticks

4. Bubbles

5. Art Supplies

6. Playing cards

7. Bouncy balls

8. A small bell

9. Spider rings or mood rings

10. Drawing or coloring pencils

11. Wax crayons

12. Small rocks painted like eyeballs

13. Mini cardboard cover notepads

14. A bag of jacks

15. Packets of vegetable or wildflower seeds

16. A Happy Halloween card

17. Printed out instructions for a cool magic trick

18. Small ghost rag dolls made out of old t-shirts and cotton balls

19. “Potion” bottles made from small recycled bottles and water with natural food coloring

20. A few sheets of colorful origami paper with a pattern or two

21. Natural cord and a few colorful glass beads to make a necklace or bracelet

22. Seashells

23. Small balls of yarn for crafts

24. Crystals

25. Colorful polished stones

26. Cotton jump ropes (no plastic handles)

27. Hackey sacks

28. Small wooden paint brushes

29. A shiny 2019 quarter

30. Costco has a giant package of Legos. It would be really cool to put 4 or 5 bricks together as a Halloween treat.

31. Go through your own kids’ toy bins to find small things they no longer use that other kids may! Like Matchbox cars, Hex bugs, etc.

For more ideas for non-food items, try https://www.foodallergy.org/education-awareness/teal-pumpkin-project .

Talk to your kids about how you can make Halloween a magical, creative, healthy, and not-so-wasteful holiday that is fun for everyone!

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Disclaimer: the article is for informational/educational purposes only and the reader should contact a qualified professional before making significant health and lifestyle changes.

Andrea is a Communications Consultant and Professor in the MPH program at UVM. She is creator of BreakingFreefromSugar.com. More info at: AndreaGrayson.com