In the United States, October 31st is celebrated as Halloween. Halloween is a holiday where children and other celebrants participate in marking the entrance of spooky creatures into the real world either by seeking candy for the kids or parties for the young adults. It is a time when introverted adults will indulge in silly plotlines and adrenaline-pumping moments of terror via horror movies, while the more extroverted may dance at parties. People of all ages wear flamboyant costumes and share a certain degree of flair frowned upon elsewhere, either at the office or after hours. Finally, kids request candy at neighborhood homes or apartments via calling “trick or treat” in costume and receive candy at nearly every home, bringing home a bucketful. The holiday is thus a source of great delight and entertainment. During this period, we want to celebrate Halloween with the children and young at heart.
My go-to is the horror movie option. But for me, the scariest part of Halloween is not the horror films designed to commemorate the holiday, as much as I love a good B-movie or “jump scare” (a sudden surprise entrance of the villain or monster in the said genre). It’s the health effects of a sugary diet and our healthcare system’s difficulty in addressing them.
I’m not against candy per se–don’t get me wrong, I have a huge sweet tooth. But that has always gotten me into trouble. When I was a small kid–around six–I made a habit of secretly snacking on leftover Halloween candy while my parents weren’t looking and ended up getting four or more cavities. My mother knew I was afraid of the dentist, so she arranged for full anesthesia rather than topical numbing–so I wouldn’t experience anything particularly traumatic.
This isn’t particularly remarkable, is it? It is because of my family’s dental insurance. My mother was able to schedule surgery rather than put me in a frightening situation. It’s probable that some children would not have the ability to get surgery, or even possibly not have the cavities removed at all. Only 50.2% of Americans have dental insurance (CDC). Scary indeed. This means excruciating pain for millions despite living in the wealthiest country in the world.
As far as the normalization of a poor diet, the problem is not that tooth decay and diet-related diseases such as obesity are increasingly common alone. There’s no direct connection between Halloween candy and sugary diets in themselves. Many parents make candy a spectacle once a year (or near once-a-year), while others let children indulge at other points.
But normalizing the collection of candy while in costume, as fun as it is for children, is normalizing consuming vast amounts of processed carbohydrates. Its part of the well-dispersed impact sugar has on our eating habits. In fact, craving sweetness over nutritious diets is a national problem. In the U.S. alone, 40% of children are predicted to develop diabetes (Healthy Food America), often connected to socioeconomic disparities (CDC). In a related study on soda (another caloric good) Han and Powell demonstrated that socioeconomic status determined excess calorie consumption and thus obesity in children and adolescents. And this pattern of increasing obesity shows no sign of slowing across all groups, not just the most vulnerable.
After all this dire information, what can you do about it? You can opt-out of candy distribution and inculcate more healthy habits, such as giving out toys rather than treats. One example is glow-in-the-dark bracelets, which can help prevent pedestrian accidents as kids traverse neighborhoods after the sun sets (Berry and Beniaris). Another example is the traditionally suggested apples and raisins, which are sweet but guide young people towards healthier snacks rather than candies. Perhaps with your help, Halloween will be as wholesome, family-friendly, and fun as it absolutely should and can be.
Berry E and Beniaris K. 26 Non-Candy Halloween Treats Kids Will Actually Want. Womansday.com. Updated October 5 2022. Accessed October 12 2022. https://www.womansday.com/life/a52496/non-candy-halloween-treats/
Han E and Powell L. Consumption Patterns of Sugar Sweetened Beverages in the United States. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013; 113(1): 43–53.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662243/. Accessed October 12 2022.
Healthy Food America. Sugar Advocacy Toolkit. Healthyfoodamerica.com. n.d. Accessed October 12 2022. https://www.healthyfoodamerica.org/sugartoolkit_overview#:~:text=More%20than%20half%20of%20Americans,percent%20of%20their%20total%20calories.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Regional Variation in Private Dental Coverage and Care Among Dentate Adults Aged 18–64 in the United States, 2014–2017. Published May 2019. Accessed October 17 2022.
Steirman B et al. National Health and Nutrition Survey 2017–March 2020 Prepandemic Data Files Development of Files and Prevalence Estimates for Selected Health Outcomes. Published June 14 2021. Accessed October 17 2022. https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/106273