Health

Halloween great time for healthy snack talk

Elaborate costumes and sugary treats are the primary focus on Halloween, but health and safety, including the need for dental hygiene, are also considerations for parents.

Elaborate costumes and sugary treats are the primary focus on Halloween, but health and safety — including the need for dental hygiene — are also considerations for parents.

When the little princesses and zombies arrive home with bulging sacks of candy and unload them on the kitchen table to count, sort and take delight in their haul — 12 bags of chips! a full-size chocolate bar! — mom or dad should be nearby and watching for possible problems. 
Dentists and dieticians say one can still make Halloween reasonably healthy for kids without resorting to tactics like no candy. (Charlie Litchfield/Idaho Press-Tribune/Associated Press)

Get rid of homemade candy or baked goods that come from people you don't know, Health Canada recommends, and throw out treats that aren't wrapped or have torn or loose packages.

Fresh fruit should be washed thoroughly and inspected for punctures and cuts, and thrown out if any are found, the agency says.

"Remove choking hazards such as gum, peanuts, hard candies or small toys when young children are involved."

In addition, people with allergies have to be alert for ingredients that could cause an adverse reaction.

Gobbling of treats usually starts during sorting, and a Winnipeg dentist says a back-and-forth between parents and kids about health considerations can begin right then.

"It's a great time, or an opportunity for discussion about healthy versus sort of unhealthy sort of snacks," says Dr. Robert Schroth, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba who also practises  at two inner-city dental clinics.

"It's a good point just to inform kids about, you know, sort of sticky, really sugary contents versus maybe some more natural things."

He recommends that in the days and weeks to come, kids consume their treats after a meal — whether it's lunch or dinner — and brush afterward with fluoridated toothpaste to get rid of sugar that's sticking to the teeth.

When someone eats something sweet, there is a tendency for the pH levels in the mouth to drop, setting the scene for tooth decay, Schroth says.

"For the pH in the mouth to get back to its normal sort of regular pH when no cavities can occur, that often takes at least 20 minutes for this rebalancing to occur," he says.

"So rather than having a kid nibble on candies, you know, throughout the whole entire evening, which would keep that pH very low for a much longer period of time, sometimes all at once is not a bad thing, and then brush and that pH can get back to normal."

Jennifer Broxterman, a registered dietitian in London, Ont., says Halloween is a special time of year when fun childhood memories are formed, partly associated with a larger intake of candy.

Parents can explain that "this isn't how we would eat all of the time," but let kids interact with the candy so they don't feel as if they're being deprived or being treated differently from other children, she says.

"It is OK once or twice in a year for a kid to indulge just a little bit more," but after the first couple of days she advises reducing overall consumption and keeping portion sizes more modest.

"We definitely don't want children having so much sugar all at once where it's really going to spike their blood sugar levels and be well beyond what they need," she says, recommending that kids eat a full meal first and use Halloween treats as a dessert — just a couple of pieces for a four- or five-year-old and perhaps six to 10 pieces for an older child.

Not too much candy

Halloween treats will undoubtedly find their way into school lunch bags, and Schroth has advice on that score too.

"Some schools, actually we're fortunate that they do have brushing programs. Other schools may allow kids to chew sugarless gum … if a child can't get to brush over the lunch hour, at least if they chew on that for a little bit of time." This will help remove food from the teeth and stimulate saliva production, says Schroth, who typically hands out sugarless gum to trick-or-treaters.

Broxterman says one or two pieces of Halloween candy in lunch bags are fine, but suggests that kids not have free access after school.

"If they come home from school unsupervised, that would be the first thing they would go and reach for," she speculates. Instead, she encourages healthy after-school snacks, such as fruits and veggies, whole-grain crackers and cheese, and yogurt.

Dr. Michael Kramer, a pediatrician at McGill University in Montreal, isn't too concerned about Halloween candy consumption.

 "I think it's a good thing psychologically — I'm not saying that the candy is good for them — but I think it's a good thing for the kids and the parents to let go for a day a year, you know?" he says.

"A little bit of that candy every day for a year could certainly add up to a lot of calories, but over a course of one day or a couple of days it's really not going to make much difference."

But Kramer admits he wouldn't want his own kids eating sticky sweet candies on a regular basis, expressing concern about the effect on their teeth.

"So it is a question of quantity and frequency," he says.   

"If they're having too much candy, they're probably not going eat so much at their next meal," he adds.

Kramer says there's no evidence that sugar leads to hyperactivity, despite the myths to the contrary. A child would probably have to eat a huge chocolate bar to actually see a measurable impact on sleep, he notes.

Schroth suggests that Halloween is a good time to reinforce the idea that everyone in the family needs to take care of their teeth.

"If kids, little ones, can see mom and dad brushing after indulging in a few chocolates or a few candies from Halloween, bring the kid into the washroom as well, and as you as a parent brush, let your child brush and … lead by example," he said.

"Oral care is part of overall body care."

He says tooth decay in very young children is probably the number 1 reason for pediatric day surgeries in Canada, "and I think the part here is to remember it is preventable."

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