If you are anything like me, you will spend Halloween dressed like a pirate and eating more peanut butter cups than any person should eat in an entire month. But as we prepare to enjoy our costumes and candy, health mullahs around the country are using the October holiday to warn us about the dangers of childhood obesity. Instead of candy, groups like the Center for Science in The Public Interest (CSPI) are encouraging parents to hand out treats besides candy on Halloween, like low-sodium pistachios. Awesome.
According to a spokesperson for CSPI, "Halloween shouldn't be candy-free, but candy doesn’t have to be the only thing handed out at every house. There are plenty of things to give to kids that don't promote obesity and tooth decay."
Despite such protests, we don't need to change our Halloween habits one bit. One day out of the year can't promote or reduce childhood obesity. Anybody who says otherwise should be pointed to and laughed at. I'm happy to stop the argument right there, but science has something to say about this issue as well, because science likes peanut butter cups as much as I do.
Like most health problems, childhood obesity didn't pop up overnight. According to one study, childhood obesity tripled over a span of 30 or so (1965-1996) years. That's a huge increase, no doubt, but it took over three decades to reach those levels. You will also notice if you look at the study that the increase in childhood obesity followed a major shift in the American diet. A lot of changes occurred during this period, our soda consumption jumped for example, but during this three-decade period. we began eating a lot more grains and sugar while simultaneously decreasing our fat consumption, a change I have spent many words complaining about on this site.
Whatever you think of our changing dietary habits, the point here is that we had to change the way our children ate and keep them eating that way for a long time before they became overweight and obese. In light of those facts, picking on one particular food, like candy, and the one day on which we eat a lot of it, Halloween, is clearly a pointless way to approach the problem.
Moreover, though very real, the obesity problem in the United States may not be the impending disaster so many public health advocates have claimed. A 2008 study of eight million 5th, 7th, and 9th graders published in the journal Pediatrics found that obesity among the studied population in California, which is a good comparison to the rest of the country, leveled off for most groups in the study, and even declined among some. Another study from the same year also concluded that obesity rates among adolescents have leveled off. A more recent analysis published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association reached a similar conclusion: obesity rates for children and adults have stalled.
But squabbling over the obesity statistics may be an entirely useless exercise anyway. As I have pointed out in a different context, the lines that separate overweight and obese people from everybody else are awfully blurry and, critics of the Body Mass Index (BMI) would argue, even arbitrary. It's hard to take warnings about Halloween candy seriously when changes to how we measure body weight can make 30 million people obese overnight, for instance.
The lesson to be learned here is pretty simple, and it's one everybody should have memorized a long time ago. Eating a lot of candy one day out of the year isn't our problem; subsisting on a steady diet of junk food is. Once everybody figures that out, we can start working on real ways to get ourselves and our families healthier. So this Wednesday, let your guilt go and have a few pieces of candy. I'm certainly going to.