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I am better at cheating at Candy Land than anyone I know. I can lose in four to six moves, every time. I think I have actually lost in three moves, but I never mention that. It would be like someone saying he finished a marathon in two hours; adult minds would naturally question it. But I don’t play with adult minds. I play with my 4-year-old, typically at the very end of her day, when she’s exhausted and I want nothing more than to tuck her into bed without incident. For my daughter, losing at Candy Land at the end of a long day would be no fun at all. So I cheat.

If you want to lose at Candy Land with a weary 4-year-old, try my best strategies: As she’s fiddling with a small pink pony with lavender hair, I stealthily arrange the cards. First, she’ll get a card with one blue box, because that will land her on Peppermint Pass, the little candy-cane train tracks that get more than a third of the way to the finish line. On my turn, I draw one of the cards with a candy on it, perhaps the triple-scoop ice cream cone, which will put me far behind. Next, she’ll get a candy card from the top of the board, perhaps the purple lollypop from the Lollypop Woods. After that, the game can play out naturally, and she’ll be the winner at Candy Castle in no time. Using this approach, I can get us through three rounds in about 10 minutes.

Candy Land, in case you haven’t played it, is a board game for preschoolers in which you pilot a little plastic gingerbread person along a path that threads through notable sweets. The game was published by Milton Bradley in 1949, and the original version featured a Crooked Old Peanut Brittle House, a Ginger Bread Plum Tree, and a sticky Molasses Swamp, among other quaint destinations.

I’d love to see a study gauging the recognition of any of those foods among American 4-year-olds today. The plums in gingerbread, which used to make a rare appearance at Christmas, are now considered prunes. And molasses? To know what molasses is would require having grown up in a house where someone cooked from scratch — a rarity these days. Peanut brittle, too, harkens back to the days of home candy-making, especially in the South, where the peanuts grow.

Now, you may question the wisdom of any children’s game that glorifies sweets, but back when these homemade treats were cooked up by relatives and offered only on occasion, child obesity and type 2 diabetes were almost unheard of.

Today, by contrast, the average American eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, nearly 6 cups a week (about 150 pounds a year), mostly in the form of processed foods and beverages. Two hundred years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. Mostly in treats like prune-filled gingerbread, at Christmas. No matter. These are not things to think about in the fragile moments before bedtime.

I can’t help but notice, however, that the current version of Candy Land we play at home is chock-a-block with marketing opportunities and mass-produced treats. There’s a Barbie doll–like minx named Princess Frostine among the Popsicles, and a pink Tinker Bell of a fairy called Princess Lolly in the Lollypop Woods — each of which might easily come to life as a Happy Meal toy.

I’ve also noticed that this is a game that celebrates shameless lily-gilding. (Why settle for a single cupcake if there’s a chance to crown it with another cupcake? Why tolerate a plain old scoop of ice cream when there’s a chance to put sprinkles on it?) And, as such, Candy Land starts to look an awful lot like a metaphor for modern American life.

We start the year with a New Year’s Day brunch that culminates in bite-size cheesecakes, run headlong into heart-shaped boxes on Valentine’s Day, then overtop the Easter baskets with jelly beans and marshmallow chicks. Next, we fête mom with more bite-size cheesecakes, get Dad something manly like chocolate-dipped bacon, and then it’s on to full-blown Popsicle-and-double-scoop season, which tumbles into trick-or-treat treats everywhere, which spills into pie-buffet season, and a flurry of cookie parties and chocolate Santas, after which we break out the novelty liquor-filled chocolate bottles on New Year’s Eve, to pair with the Godiva Death by Chocolate martini. Then you wake up to a brunch of more bite-size cheesecakes.

We eat a lot of this sugar simply because we want to be nice, and we hate to be rude. What are you supposed to do when someone gives you a big heart-shaped box of something wonderful and Belgian? Run screaming in disgust? What choice do you have when you’re presented with a composition of jelly beans filling a plastic bag shaped like a carrot? Or when the nice volunteer firefighters are passing out lollypops at the parade? Or, well, you know the drill.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these gestures; people are just expressing their affection for one another. And yet . . .

The truth is, healthwise, if you actually eat all the sweet treats you are offered, you’ll soon find yourself up a chocolate creek in a peppermint canoe, as it were.

I grew up in a household that banned sugar, and I think it made me slightly nuts about food by the time I reached my teens. In junior high school, I ballooned up in response to my newfound ability to obtain sugar under my own power. That was followed by a dangerously thin high-school period, in which I overcompensated for the weird self-image I developed in junior high.

So, I’m no Grinch about sugar. My own kids will have plenty of jelly beans in their Easter baskets, and I’ll even buy them those hideously garish Powerpuff Girl gumball-eyed confections from the ice cream truck now and then. There’s probably no perfect path for parents in this Candy Land we live in today, but there’s also no denying we have a serious problem on our hands.

So, what do I do? I model myself on the virtuous koala and simply carry a bunch of washed eucalyptus leaves with me wherever I go. That way, if anyone presents me with a 3-foot-long Toblerone bar to celebrate the success of my last project, I can simply take out a leaf and begin nibbling.

No, actually, I don’t. Of course I don’t! And I don’t grind flaxseeds to sprinkle over my cabbage leaves for extra fiber, either. But I did make a decision many years ago to drink beverages made from plants, like coffee and tea, instead of beverages made of sugar, like soda. And I have become socially confident enough that I can now refuse desserts I don’t actually want, like those stupid cookies that come in the box lunches at catered events, or even the cupcakes offered to me as a genuine, heartfelt thank-you.

When I leave those desserts untouched in their boxes, I no longer feel embarrassed or rude. Truth is, I have as much regret about skipping most cookies as I do about ignoring the dry leaves resting near a tree when I’m out for a walk. Because that’s more or less what excess sugar has become for us today: It’s as ubiquitous as leaves on the forest floor, as common as plankton in the ocean. It’s our ecosystem, our habitat, and increasingly, it’s a dangerous game we’re stuck playing whether we want to or not.

But take it from a world-class Candy Land cheater — if you want to stack the deck in your favor, it can be done.

Editor’s Note: “In the print version of “Prisoner in Candyland” (May 2013), the editors mistakenly inserted the term “juvenile diabetes” for the author’s correct term “type 2 diabetes.” We regret the error.”

Illustration by: Tom Kaczynski

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