According to the American Diabetes Association, someone in the United States is diagnosed with diabetes every 19 seconds.
Now, imagine that person being diagnosed is your child.
And now imagine that your child’s condition could have been prevented.
Childhood diabetes is typically associated with type 1 diabetes—previously known as juvenile diabetes—where the body loses its ability to produce insulin. However, in recent years, an increasing number of children have developed both precursors and full cases of type 2 diabetes; the type of diabetes typically associated with adults who are sedentary, have poor eating habits and also a family history of diabetes.
One of the prime factors for developing type 2 diabetes is obesity.
Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coupled with less active and more sedentary lifestyles—thanks to the pervasive nature of media such as phones, tablets and video games—children are moving less and eating more than ever. More than 5,000 kids younger than 20 are newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes each year, according to the CDC.
“Diabetes is a family issue,” says Elizabeth Littlejohn, MD, associate clinical director of the Kovler Diabetes Center at University of Chicago Medicine. “If one child is having prediabetic symptoms or develops type 2 diabetes, there are generally other family members battling the condition as well.”
What Is Type 2 Diabetes?
When we eat foods with sugar in them, our bodies naturally decide how that sugar moves into our cells using a hormone called insulin. We need that insulin to make sure our bodies can manage sugar. When type 2 diabetes develops, the body still produces insulin, but it becomes less effective in dealing with the sugars we eat. This is called insulin resistance. As a result, the pancreas works overtime, producing more insulin and potentially wearing out from having to do all that work.
Over time, insulin resistance can lead to prediabetes—when blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes—or to full-blown type 2 diabetes. But it’s not too late to turn things around. A diagnosis of insulin resistance or prediabetes can be considered a wake-up call to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
In a world filled with sugary drinks and highly processed convenience foods, it’s easy for kids to get trapped in unhealthy eating habits. As those habits persist, Littlejohn advises that adults should be on the lookout for these warning signs of diabetes in kids:
- Frequent urination and increased consumption of water: The body’s natural defense against elevated glucose levels is to flush out the excess in urine, prompting kids to use the bathroom more frequently.
- Low energy levels: When the body can’t use glucose properly, we feel tired.
- Darkened skin on the neck: This is a condition called acanthosis nigricans, which is frequently seen in children with high insulin levels.
Littlejohn recommends that if a child is overweight and presents with a combination of these warning signs, parents should consult their doctor and have their child tested for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. This is easily done through blood tests and additional screening at your physician’s office.
No parent wants to think that there’s something they could have done to prevent a disease in their child. Yet, type 2 diabetes is potentially avoidable.
With that in mind, Littlejohn offers these lifestyle changes that adults can help their kids make. They’ll bring families together and help keep kids healthier than ever.
- Make grocery shopping fun: When you’re laying off the processed, sugary foods and drinks (sodas and juices are out), there has to be something to fill the cart. Bring kids grocery shopping, and let them pick out their own fresh fruits and vegetables. Ask them how they want the fruit and vegetables prepared. Your best bet is to change your eating habits as a family—for everyone’s health.
- Move as a family: Get kids involved in more movement-based activities like sports. Contact your local community center for low- and no-cost programs. And before a good family meal on the weekends, why not take a walk or head out on a hike or bike ride together?
- Limit media time: The more time children spend in front a screen, the less they’re moving. Consider making screen time a reward for time spent doing physical activities like chores and other things that get the body moving.
“Lifestyle change is hard for kids and even harder for families,” Littlejohn says. “The best results for kids facing lifestyles prone to type 2 diabetes are always from a grassroots approach. The family has to be involved because everyone’s health is at risk if things don’t change.”
For more easy-to-understand information on type 2 diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association.
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.