A handful of candy corn from a dish on the mantel. A ghost-shaped sugar cookie from the office breakroom. A few fun-size Hershey bars from the bag designated for trick-or-treaters. Though Halloween is still weeks away, many people already are tempted by seasonal treats.
"I've had many clients work their way through one or two bags of candy before Halloween gets here," says Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian with Ochsner's Elmwood Fitness Center.
"We put down our walls a bit this time of year," says Julie Fortenberry, a dietitian at Touro Infirmary. "When candy is individually wrapped and in cute shapes, it seems more innocent to us."
Studies show sugar can be as habit-forming as nicotine or alcohol, Fortenberry says. When it's time to purchase candy, do so with a strategy. First, buy candy that you don't love. If you can't resist Starburst, for example, go with malted milk balls.
"Don't buy your favorite candy to give to trick-or-treaters, because it's just torture," Fortenberry says.
Second, limit your exposure to Hallo-ween candy by delaying purchasing it as long as possible.
"People buy candy because they see it or it's on sale," Kimball says. "A lot of times they think, 'I'm here, I might as well get it.' But it's better to wait until closer to Halloween."
"Otherwise, it becomes months of eating Halloween candy, and after [the holiday] as well," Fortenberry says.
Third, consider handing out things other than candy. There's a healthy middle ground between sugary treats and apples and dental floss that Kimball says kids enjoy. Her standbys are 1-ounce bags of Sun Chips, almond packets, lightly flavored caramel popcorn in single-serve bags, temporary tattoos and glow-in-the-dark pieces.
"Kids like the things we give out (as Halloween treats) because they're different," Kimball says. "People give an eye roll when [they hear we don't hand out candy], but I don't think all these kids are lying to us."
Even the best-laid plans can be derailed if you have children who bring home buckets of trick-or-treat spoils. It's fine to eat a few pieces of your favorite candy. Fortenberry suggests choosing two things "that are a 10 out of 10 on the excitement scale" and having family members do the same.
"It's important that kids learn a balance — that it's OK to have candy, it's just not an everyday food," Fortenberry says.
Kimball steers clients away from candies that are nearly entirely sugar or corn syrup and artificial colors, including fruity candies like gummy bears, Skittles and Starburst. She recommends candies that include nuts, such as Snickers bars or peanut M&Ms.
"The nuts give you fat and a slight amount of protein, and they keep you fuller longer, so you feel satisfied with less than you would with the sugar candy," she says. "As far as blood sugar and energy levels go, it will keep those things more steady with less of a crash."
Some of Fortenberry's and Kimball's clients are ultra-sensitive to sugar. It affects them the same way drugs or alcohol affects an addict. People who are sensitive to sugar should steer clear of sweets entirely to avoid falling into a cycle of craving. For others, Kimball suggests following the American Heart Association's guidelines for maximum daily sugar consumption (which includes sugar occuring in meals): 100 calories or 25 grams of sugar per day for women and 150 calories or 37.5 grams for men.
"That translates to one to two fun-size pieces," Kimball says.
Again, it's important to limit exposure to candy. Once you have picked your favorite treats, get the candy out of the house. This is easier said than done if you have children. Fortenberry relies on a "Switch Witch," a Tooth Fairy-like character who brings children gifts in exchange for their candy. Some businesses, including Learning Express, offer a store credit in exchange for donated candy. Nonprofit organization Operation Gratitude distributes candy to members of the military stationed overseas.
"There are different options other than throwing it away," Kimball says.
Kimball and Fortenberry say it's OK to indulge in Halloween treats as long as it doesn't become a habit.
"Nobody gains a lot of weight from eating one or two pieces of candy," Fortenberry says. "It's the snowball effect (that will get you)."