Halloween’s real trick is the treats

boocandycornThis was my first Halloween without candy.

That’s big. Seems like an oxymoron to mark All Hallow’s Eve without a sugar rush, right?

The $8 billion U.S. candy market is counting on it and so, this holiday (horror-day!) is more about the treats than any tricks.

I remember my elementary school years, going door-to-door with a plastic pumpkin and UNICEF box to gather candy and pennies. We lived in a neighborhood with few kids, and my brother and I were the youngest ones, but the neighbors always made a big deal of Halloween. One lady, Meri, transformed her living room into a room for the dead – with zombies, ghosts and scarecrows sitting on the couches and spiderwebs and other spooky accoutrements. I remember crossing Meri’s threshold with trepidation, but she always made it fun.

Halloween was more than one night. From deciding what to be and assembling the costume to laying low on Mischief Night (older kids would egg houses, spray shaving cream on cars and wrap trees in toilet paper), the anticipation of Halloween was great.

So was the candy.

We never had sweets in the house growing up. Occasionally on an early Sunday morning, my father would drive to the bakery -- wearing his terrycloth robe and lambswool slippers -- to pick up a dozen fresh doughnuts. My favorites were jelly, glazed and custard.

That was a special treat – and an exception. We did go trick-or-treating and the rations would last for months. And the Easter Bunny would toss a few jelly beans and Peeps into a basket full of no-sugar goodies like nail polish and Mad Libs.

Despite being raised with a minimum of sugar, I got addicted. Couldn’t get enough of it. In high school, my friend and I would buy gummy bears in bulk. In my twenties, I’d hit the vending machine for a Peppermint Patty or Rice Krispies Treat every day at 3 p.m. In my thirties I had to have my daily fix of frozen yogurt.

I was always watching my calories and working out to balance the energy in versus energy out, but that was before I knew that it wasn’t just about the numbers. The type of calories – protein, carbohydrates, fat – and the nutritional value (if any) were just as important.

It was around this time that I started learning how refined sugar was bad for us. It spikes blood sugar, makes us hungry, makes us tired, causes inflammation, ages cells, and lowers our immune system.

“It’s as addictive as nicotine or heroin – and as poisonous,” reads the back cover of “Sugar Blues” by William Dufty. His book, released in 1986, was spawned by a comment many years earlier by the famed actress, Gloria Swanson, who observed him dropping a sugar cube into his coffee. “That stuff is poison. I won’t have it in my house, let alone my body.”

His book was an expose of the prevalence of refined sugar in all food products and the damage it wreaks on health. It was a blockbuster tome, but not the first to explore sugar as enemy.

The 1931 Nobel Prize for Physiology Or Medicine was awarded to Otto Warburg, who studied cancer cells. He found that oxygen and glucose enables the growth of tumors. In a 1966 speech to Nobel Laureates he said this:

“Summarized in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar. All normal body cells meet their energy needs by respiration of oxygen, whereas cancer cells meet their energy needs in great part by fermentation … Oxygen gas, the donor of energy in plants and animals is dethroned in the cancer cells and replaced by an energy yielding reaction of the lowest living forms, namely, a fermentation of glucose.”

Warburg didn’t go as far as saying that eating refined sugar causes cancer – or that stopping your intake of refined sugar will cure cancer – but much research is being done here based on his work.

This is a hot topic right now, evidenced by such stories as “10 Things You Don’t Know about Sugar” by The Huffington Post, and “Sugar Feeds Cancer” by Alternative Medicine magazine.

It's interesting to note that MARS (makers of M&Ms, Milky Way and Snickers, among others) includes in its marketing manifesto that it will not market to children aged 12 and under. Page 7 reads, "As a responsible business, Mars has made the decision not to market to children under
12 years old, based on existing scientific consensus."

So, how do we navigate between “sugar is a drug” and “everything in moderation”?

By educating ourselves and making informed choices.

You can do it.

1. Break the addiction. Create a timeline to progressively cut down on your need for refined sugar. There are lots of resources on this, from books like “The Sugar Addict’s Total Recovery Program” by Kathleen DesMaisons to Dr. Mark Hyman’s “The Blood Sugar Solution” suite of a book, a cookbook and the “10-Day Detox Program.” I’ve got the cookbook and it’s excellent.

2. Find natural substitutes. Your taste buds will recalibrate as you reduce your intake of refined sugar. If you’re conditioned to super sweetness, you may want to switch from super sweetness (those two pumps of caramel sugar syrup in your latter) to two Splenda packets, for example. Ultimately, you’ll reduce the sweetness required to satisfy your taste buds, drop the amount of sugar intake, and be sure you’re using the most naturally occurring form of sweetener (the least processed). You’ll find that your taste buds become more sensitive to detect sweetness from even the smallest amount of sugar. I went from putting two Splendas and milk in my coffee to less than a teaspoon of coconut palm sugar and unsweetened almond coconut milk. I recommend organic coconut sugar, which is naturally low-glycemic, from Big Tree Farms and Madhava. You can find bulk bags and single-serve packets, as well as other sweet options like agave.

Quick note on artificial sweeteners: These are a good temporary substitute for the process, but they’re not a healthy end in themselves. The most convincing research I’ve read shows that aspartame (in Nutrasweet, diet soda, among other products) contains methanol, which damages the brain. Splenda is a chemically altered substance, and our body doesn’t know how to process such man-made molecules. I was a fan of stevia until I read this blog. My research on these continues, but I’m sticking with coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar, if necessary) because it’s the sweetener that most natural, healthy and convenient for me.

For a little more information on how the body distinguishes between naturally occurring sugars and refined sugar, see “Metabolism matters” on this page.

3. Make it your lifestyle. Habits form when the adopted behavior is easy. So become a creature of habit; remove obstacles (like clearing your kitchen of any products that contain high fructose corn syrup or finding a new coffee spot if Starbucks will weaken your resolve), prepare your solutions (pack your own sweeteners and always carry a piece of fruit or low-sugar granola), and tell your friends (they’ll lend support).

Making the choice to avoid refined sugar is a deliberate one that is challenged every time we walk into a mini-mart, restaurant or nail salon (that candy bowl by the register!).

On Halloween I went about my day wondering when I would be confronted with a moral dilemma: a bowl of FREE CANDY.

The funny thing is I never encountered any candy all day. And good thing – my resolve might have weakened at the sight and the memory of a Twix’s delicious caramel, the crunch of an M&M’s candy shell, the light fluff of a 3 Musketeers, the chew of a Tootsie Roll or – my favorite – the lux melt of Milk Duds.

It’s not that candy wasn’t abundant this year – my friend said she drove to Costco last week and “my trunk is full of candy!” -- it’s just that there are few kids in my apartment building so I don’t participate in trick or treating. I hit a few stores during the day and then went to a swing dance extravaganza, but, surprisingly, no one had set out bowls of candy.

I was surprised, but thankful, and wondered…
Is everyone trying to cut out refined sugar?
Is everyone trying to control their weight?
Is everyone trying to eat healthy?

Those things are daily challenges for me, but they’re getting easier every day. I broke the addiction, I found alternatives and now I live the lifestyle. I’m free of refined sugar and eat a predominantly plant-based diet of organic unprocessed food.


Vats of free candy are dispensed at Disney World in Orlando.

Two years ago I accompanied a friend's family to Disney World in Orlando during Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. It was a fun atmosphere being there at night and seeing so many people in costumes. The headless horseman-led parade was excellent, but the highlight for me was the vats of candy. A dream come true! All the Butterfingers, Twizzlers and Mounds I could eat! All free!

I really tried to eat as little as possible, but the temptation was too great. Yes, of course I ended up feeling sick, but it was one night. Luckily this year I was nowhere near those vats of candy.

Still, walking down the street the other day, I passed signs hawking donuts, caramel macchiatos, ice cream, and more, and couldn’t help but think: drug dispensaries on every corner.

Now that my first candy-free Halloween is behind me, the next candy holiday is Easter. (Skipping Feb. 14th because I have no valentine prospects at this stage.) It will be a challenge to keep my perfect score of “zero candy” that I just set for Halloween.

To stay clean, I have to remind myself that I can’t handle eating refined sugar. I get palpitations, I feel sick, and I get a migraine. No joke.

Try it yourself – cut out refined sugar for a week and see how you do.

COMMENT with your experience in the quest to kick sugar.

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