September 28, 2009
You couldn't ignore Halloween if you tried, not with the shelves of nearly every store -- from your corner pharmacy to the local Wal-Mart -- piled high with candy. There's chocolate, candy bars, lollypops, licorice, chewy colored candy in cute shapes, brownie and cookie packs, hard candy, gum, and more ... much more.
This overwhelming reminder of the approach of Halloween represents more than just a tradition of dressing up in costumes to celebrate the day of the dead and then showing them off to your neighbors. Today, Halloween is really nothing more than an excuse to eat lots of sugary, insulin-triggering treats.
So in an age when close to one in five kids in the U.S. is overweight or obese, should we be rethinking our manner of celebrating this increasingly popular holiday, or simply carry on with what we've been doing? The answer appears to lie somewhere in the middle, according to childhood obesity experts.
Sarah Messiah, an epidemiologist and research assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami, works closely with overweight children and their families. When asked to suggest some strategies for dealing with Halloween in the face of epidemic weight problems, Messiah suggested that parents and caregivers try to draw the focus of the day away from the habit of collecting and eating candy.
"We should try and emphasize other fun aspects of Halloween, such as creating great costumes and family pumpkin carving." She also recommends that families use the pumpkin carving experience as a means to encourage healthy eating by making tasty snacks from the interior, such as muffins and baked pumpkin seeds.
Messiah also provides another great idea for families that are comfortable in their communities: Rather than traditional trick-or-treating, the residents on her street hold a Halloween block party. Parents meet and plan the event ahead of time and organize entertaining activities such as costume contests, games and even a potluck dinner. The intention, she says, is for everyone in the neighborhood to have fun by celebrating the occasion together rather then just gathering candy.
Lucille Beseler, a Florida-based registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric and family nutrition and the author of "Nurturing with Nutrition," suggests implementing practical strategies around the occasion.
First, she stresses, parents should not isolate overweight children by denying them participation in Halloween activities, as "this will only make the child feel badly about themselves."
Instead, Beseler encourages helpful strategies such as allowing children to make the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, but then limiting the candy they're allowed to keep to a reasonable number of their favorite pieces when they return home. It's wise to predetermine this amount before kids go out and to keep the rule consistent for all children in the family regardless of their weight.
She also suggests that parents implement a system of buying back most of the candy their children have collected and then removing it from the home. "Do not keep enough candy in the house for the next six months," Beseler says.
Despite the strong association between Halloween and eating mounds of sugary treats, there are interesting and clever techniques parents can implement to take the emphasis off candy. The idea shouldn't be to dampen the spirit of Halloween, but merely to expand our ability to enjoy the occasion with other healthier customs.
Other Halloween strategies to consider:
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