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Halloween and your family’s genetics

Ghosts, goblins, witches and zombies don’t give me nightmares on Halloween. My nightmares come on November 1. Hours after the costumes are torn off and dutifully destroyed, after my sugar-filled little ones are counting sheep, and the nightly festivities are cleaned and cleared. It’s that quiet time in the wee hours of the morning (parents, you know the one — it’s still dark, drinking the first, undisturbed cup of coffee, prepping lunches). It’s then that I peer into the Halloween bags and face the disguised villains lurking within. They are dressed up in fanciful colors that entice my children’s senses. Encased in easy-open packets, ready to be gobbled. They don’t fool me, though. I see them for what they are — a soy lecithin, high fructose corn syrup, red 40, hydrogenated vegetable oil nightmare!
I start my plan of attack… a strategy different for each child. I have three — Henry, 8; Elizabeth, 6; and George, 2.

Dealing with the candy arsenal is different for each of them. Henry’s favorite part is conquering and winning : “How many treats can I get on Halloween night and will I get more than my sister?” He couldn’t care less what happens to his stash after that. He’s my meat, beet, and broccoli lover. Elizabeth on the other hand loves combing through every piece, discovering new and delicious treats. Born sweet through and through. Finding candy wrappers under her bed is not uncommon. She loves dessert and will endure rubbery green beans and mashed parsnips to get it. George, well… he’s a mystery having slept through the last two Halloweens, but I would bet on a sweet tooth.
Why are they so different? I favor savory, my husband favors sweet. Did we pass this on through our DNA? Our eldest child, Henry, got all the benefits of first time parenting — strict on sweets, no juice, lots of meat and vegetables. Maybe it’s environment?
There does happen to be some influence from our DNA. It was reported in a scientific study that the pleasantness of, and craving for, sweet foods was in part due to our genetics (what gets passed on from mom and dad). Environment also plays an important role including exposure to different foods in the womb, daily food choices, and age. Even more interesting, you can be 20 percent more prone to having a sweet tooth based on whether you inherit a specific DNA variant. Some people have a variation of this gene which affects a secreted hormone in the liver and is associated with how much sugar a person consumes. This was looked at in a study involving 6,500 people conducted by the University of Copenhagen’s Novo Nordisk Foundation Center.
For the most part, almost all of us enjoy sweets, but how much we like them can vary. That’s certainly the case in my house. Enjoyment of sweet tasting delights is probably due in part because the brain associates it with energy for the body as described by the Monell Center for Advancing Discovery in Taste and Smell. They explain that there are genes that encode for taste receptors facilitating the sensation of taste — sweet, sour, bitter, and savory. People can have as many as 10,000 taste buds on their tongue, mouth, and throat, and they are replaced every two weeks! The number of working taste buds get smaller as we age. People who have more taste buds are called supertasters and have a heightened ability to perceive bitter tasting food.
In addition to our inherited preferences for sweet taste, we also have biological factors orchestrating events within us depending on what we eat and drink. It affects our brain function, mood, gut make-up, behavior, and more. Dr. William Tamborlane, a pediatric endocrinologist affiliated with Yale-New Haven Hospital, reported many years ago that sugar boosts adrenaline levels in children, feeding the desire cycle of more sugar. When copious amounts of sugar is eaten and quickly absorbed into the bloodstream—as sugar does—you can surmise that higher adrenaline levels could lead to greater activity. Other studies suggest, however, that sugar doesn’t cause the hyperactivity that we have all been led to believe.
As a parent, we can take this type of important information and see how it applies to our own children and situation. For me, an equation of sweet treats, costumes, friends, and haunted houses equals a sensory-overloaded kid. I’ve also observed that once the sugar surge is over, and the fun is done, my sweethearts are slumped over in their car seats fast asleep.

There’s a lot to digest when it comes to sugar consumption. With information as my weapon, I take genetics and biological factors into consideration and plot my Halloween candy strategy. Elizabeth may desire it more because she has certain variations in her DNA. Give that, how can I use this information to moderate her propensity for sugary snacks? Will a cup of raspberries satiate her instead? Has she eaten enough healthy fatty foods that might quench the sweet desire like nuts, cheese, and yogurt?
For Henry, my strategy is different. Of course, he likes Halloween candy, but not in mass quantities. I can use an incentive strategy (let’s put other genes to work). “Did you earn a good mark on your test?” or “Did you listen to your coach at swim practice?” If the answer is yes, then he can indulge (a little).
Nightmarish outcomes can be lessened by developing the right strategy for your child. And let’s face it, we know it’s not just Halloween that scares us. We face the sugar onslaught everyday with our kids. Coming up with a few ideas that work for your family may help. Here are a few things I’ve tried:

  • Only pack water in their lunch. Save juice for “special” occasions like a dinner out.
  • Use fresh fruit as an alternative to sweet snacks.
  • Load them up with a hearty breakfast with good fats to stave off those sugary urges.
  • Repeat giving them foods even if they don’t like them at first. Repetition of food can help increase the enjoyment of the flavor.
  • Always check food labels as sugar gets disguised in its own costume. Bread can be especially sneaky. Make sure sugar and honey are near the bottom of the list of ingredients.

The interplay between genetics and environment is a much studied and debated topic. Both influence outcomes, both work in tandem. Understanding this delicate balance in our own lives helps us manage everyday concerns like Halloween candy intake.
When it comes to genetics I can partially thank my husband’s genetics for passing on his sweet tooth, but I’m hoping our focus on moderation and healthy eating takes over during this ghostly season!
Learn more about your what you might pass on to your children in the Helix Store.
Jennifer heads Commercial Development at HumanCode. Her career has spanned the age of genomics from a time when the sequence of the human genome was only being deciphered to now when we can understand it for ourselves. She is a mom, first and foremost, to three incredible children — Henry, Elizabeth, and George. And manages the fun and chaos with her husband and partner in crime, Simon.
Republished with permission from