Stop Halloween from becoming a health nightmare

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by Michelle Castillo / CBS News

KMOV.com

Posted on October 31, 2012 at 9:38 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 31 at 9:40 AM

(CBS News) -- Halloween is a spooky time of year -- especially for dentists, dietitians and nutritionists.

Tradition dictates that kids will be running around their neighborhoods, greedily grabbing up any candy or treats doled their way. That sugar rush ensures that diets and teeth could potentially turn into a frightful mess.

"Kids think about it all year, so we can't tell them, 'We've changed the holiday on you," Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association, told CBSNews.com.

Instead of hearing howls from your kids over candy restrictions, there are some ways to ensure that they enjoy their treats without causing a health scare. From a dentist's perspective, some sugary snacks are better than others, Shenkin said. Candies that linger and stay in the mouth longer -- like hard candy, caramels and toffee --  can cause extended tooth decay. Bacteria in the mouth are fueled by the sugar, which in turn creates acid and destroys teeth.

The best candy to give out that will leave everyone smiling? Hard to believe, but Shenkin said it's milk chocolate.

"If you had to chose from a group of candies what the least evil thing to give out is, it's plain milk chocolate," he explained. "It clears the mouth really quickly, and that's the best bet from a dental perspective."

That doesn't mean a child should have all the chocolates he or she wants. Jennifer McDaniel, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson, said that sending your kids out with a king-sized pillow case is asking for a sugar overload. Give them a moderate-sized bag, and spend the rest of the night doing a fun activity or fun dinner, she suggested. Also, make sure to give them a substantial snack or mini meal before they start trick-or-treating so they won't snack on the candy the whole night.

Once back home, McDaniel said parents should ask kids to separate their treats into a love it or leave it pile and donate the pile they don't want to charity. Soldiers' Angels or Operation Gratitude will send unwanted candy overseas to military members, she suggested.

For the candy they crave, she recommends portioning it into 100 calorie portions (four Hershey's Kisses or two small snack-sized candy bars) so kids can control how much they eat in one sitting. The important thing, she pointed out, is that parents allow their  kids to have a say about the treat situation. What kids want is to have choices, she explained.

"You can ask them, 'Would you like to have candy in your lunchbox or would you like to have candy at dinner time?' Instead of saying you can only have this amount of candy, give them choices that you're content with," McDaniel said.

Another option is to allow kids to trade their candy for something else they want.

"Kids aren't obsessed with candy that they would be willing to trade it in for a fun night at the movie or a new toy," she explained.

Shenkin agreed. Recently the ADA has teamed up with the creators of "Plants Vs. Zombies" for a campaign called Stop Zombie Mouth. Kids who visit the dentist get "Plants Vs. Zombies" trading cards with helpful oral health messages on them and a free download for a game. The goal is to get kids to care about their oral health.

"Only 44 percent of kids brush their teeth twice a day," Shenkin explained. "It's horrible. More than half of kids will get a cavity by the time they are in 2nd grade."

The dentist said its possible to make Halloween less candy-centric but still fun for kids. Instead of handing out candy, try handing out stickers to young kids and sugar-free gum for older children, which actually can help reduce tooth decay by stimulating saliva flow and diluting sugar in the mouth, he said. And, if you absolutely have to hand out candy, try handing out smaller treats instead of big bars.

But, most of all, McDaniel reminds parents not to restrict all the fun.

"In terms of keeping it a healthy holiday, from a parent's perspective you have to remember it is a holiday, and there are some indulgences.... But we need to establish healthy guidelines for ourselves and our children."

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