All hail fats and sugars.
As the days of October grow shorter, children and candy companies across America look forward with gluttonous glee to the night when the food pyramid becomes officially inverted. But for nutritionists, Halloween is one of the scariest nights of the year.
This year, a group of Yale scientists is hoping the aftermath of Halloween will find more children playing with stickers and glow-in-the-dark spiders than stuffing their faces.
In a study conducted last Halloween, researchers found that children are just as likely to choose small toys over candy when offered both. Out of 284 children between the ages of three and 14 offered “Toy or Treat,” half the participants chose stretch pumpkin men, glow-in-the-dark insects, Halloween stickers or pencils over assorted fruit-flavored candies.
Published in a recent issue of the Journal of Nutrition, Education and Behavior, the study was conducted at seven homes in five Connecticut towns. Children were offered similarly sized and colored candies and toys.
“We have gotten into a mindset where the only way to celebrate special occasions or social occasions is with unhealthy dessert-type foods,” said Marlene Schwartz, associate research scientist in the Department of Psychology and the principle investigator of the study.
The results ought to reassure parents that children will not be disappointed by non-candy treats on Halloween, Schwartz said. Herself a mother of three, she said she felt compelled to conduct the study when she realized the frequency with which adults give children unhealthy foods.
“Children are barraged with messages to eat unhealthy foods,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. “Anything that can be done to reverse this, to show children that they can be treated with things other than sweet foods, will be helpful.”
Schwartz said America is experiencing an epidemic of childhood obesity. According to the American Obesity Association, the frequency of obesity in children ages six to 11 increased from seven percent in 1976 to 15.3 percent in 2000. As many as one in four adults are currently considered obese.
Although Halloween is only one night a year, Schwartz said she wants to focus more on the bigger picture of health and nutrition. Children learn about balanced nutrition in health classes in school, but the amount of candy and fast-food offered to them often offsets these positive steps forward, she said.
“I think also [it is important] for adults to start thinking about how we can send consistent messages to kids,” Schwartz said. “That sort of mixed message is a serious problem.”
But some say Halloween serves an important release function for children with parents on a nutritional bent. Liz Jordan ’06 said she has no doubt she would have chosen candy over toys as a kid.
“My parents were really into nutrition, so when I got candy, I went wild with it,” Jordan said.
Schwartz said the study indicates that older children are more likely to choose candy than toys.
Many college students agreed.
“Any time there’s free food involved, that’s definitely what I’d go for,” Jordan said.