By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

The first house gives out a fun-size Snickers bar, a delicious little treat. You eat it in an instant, then walk to the next house, one mile away.

Chances are your Halloween is calorie-neutral — so far. But the night is young.

That’s the challenge of America’s favorite candy holiday, when untold tons of sugar are dumped into bags and buckets on a single night, and then into our bodies. It won’t ruin your health right away, but the annual festivities can reinforce bad eating habits with long-term implications.

“We need to make it a one- or two-day special treat,” said Jean Welsh, Ph.D., a nutritional epidemiologist at Emory University in Atlanta, “and not make it an overindulgence that lasts a month or more, which it could with the amount of candy many kids collect.”

Welsh, an expert on child nutrition, said typical American children already consume two to three times as much sugar as they should, with the help of sodas, juices, added sugars in food, and junk food. That can lead to obesity and diabetes, major risk factors for heart disease later in life.

The American Heart Association last year recommended specific sugar limits for kids: Children and teens should consume less than 6 teaspoons of added sugars a day and drink no more than 8 ounces of sugary beverages a week.

[Kids and added sugars: How much is too much?]

“We have kind of lost track of sugars and sweets as an occasional treat. They’ve become so much a part of our daily diet,” said Welsh, also research director of the Strong4Life Initiative at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Our job as parents should be to recognize that sugary treats have their place, they’re fun, we all enjoy them. But we need to help our kids figure out how to incorporate them in their lives without going overboard.”

Halloween is the front line of that battle for balance. Welsh, a mother of four who hands out treats and admits to intercepting a few for herself, recommends focusing more on the holiday’s “healthy aspects – dressing up, decorations and taking walks through the neighborhood to be sure to see all of the decorations.”

How much trick-or-treating does it take to burn off those candy calories? One commonly used figure for walking is 100 calories per mile, but the number varies by how fast you walk and how much you weigh. Faster walkers burn more, as do heavier people who need to expend more energy.

Whether we want to know them or not, calorie counts are more exact. That fun-size Snickers has 80 calories, and this chart has the numbers for more popular treats, from a 30-calorie Charleston Chew to a 110-calorie Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Each little candy corn, by the way, will cost you about seven calories.

Once all the candy is home, Welsh said, “It’s important to have a plan. We want to be careful about being too restrictive with our kids. It’s a holiday. But giving them the bucket full of candy and the indication that it’s OK to eat it all isn’t the message we want to send, either.”

There are many coping strategies beyond making candy disappear and hoping kids won’t notice. Many dentists participate in a Halloween candy buy-back program, which pays kids for their candy and ships it to military bases around the world.

Health advocates suggest using Halloween as an opportunity to discuss sound eating habits and rationing treats over time. Conveniently, the AHA proclaims November as Eat Smart Month, and offers a toolkit for schools, workplaces and individuals.

There are science experiments with candy, while Martha Stewart even has suggestions for using Halloween loot to make crafts.

Welsh is partial to the “Switch Witch,” a tooth fairy-like character who comes at night, takes the candy and leaves a gift. For older kids, a nonmagical swap may work as well.

Even after the trick-or-treating is over, one final Halloween danger is lurking. The next morning, supermarkets and discount stores need to make room for the Christmas candy, so those Halloween treats are suddenly a terrific bargain.

“We have to use our self-control,” Welsh said. “Leaving it at the store is our best defense.”

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