In recent years, there's been an upward trend in the incidence of type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), type 2 diabetes begins when the body becomes insulin resistant and can no longer use insulin properly. As insulin needs rise, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar.
Although type 2 diabetes is caused by a variety of factors, having a family history of type 2 diabetes, being obese, and being inactive put children and adolescents at increased risk for what used to be thought of as an adult disease. Although diabetes can strike anyone, those who belong to non-white groups—especially American Indians—are at greatest risk.
Because type 2 diabetes may present with few, if any, symptoms, it may go undiagnosed in children. But if your child experiences increased hunger, thirst, or urination, weight loss, fatigue or other unusual symptoms, it's worth a visit to the pediatrician to discuss these and get to their root.
To help your child ward off diabetes—and eat and live better—here are 5 tips from two pros—Toby Smithson, RDN, CDE, founder of DiabetesEveryDay.com and coauthor of the new book, Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies® and Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, author of the new book, The Prediabetes Diet Plan.
1. Eat at home. According to Smithson, "Fast food equals more calories and fat, less fiber and nutrition. Eating at home offers opportunities to teach kids about cooking and also offers great communication opportunities." Wright adds, "Sharing healthy meals as a family is critical to balancing out the non-stop messaging kids are exposed to outside the home encouraging them to buy junk food and eat on-the-fly. Kids learn by example, so demonstrating what healthy eating looks like while they're living under your roof is a critical self-care skill they'll need for life."
2. Snack smarter. When it's after-school snack time, Wright urges parents to offer their kids a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, yogurt, or cheese sticks instead refined crackers or nutrient-poor packaged snack foods. She says, "Hungry kids may be more willing to try something new, so take the after-school time to introduce new foods to your kids since they may be more receptive to them then."
3. Plan it, buy it. Encouraging your child to plan a meal (like dinner), write a grocery list for the items needed and then selecting those items when at the grocery store can be very empowering for children, says Smithson. She adds, "Giving them a say in what's served, and in what new foods they (or the family) should try may make it more likely that they'll take a taste when dinner time comes around."
4. Help them read between the lines. Smithson says it's key to teach kids, even from a young age, to be food media literate. "It's important for parents and children to understand food advertising and to take a stand against it by not always giving in to it, Smithson says. Because children are exposed to thousands of hours of targeted advertising for fast food, snacks, and sugar-sweetened cereal, Smithson urges parents to help their kids read between the lines of food marketing strategies. (You can learn more about food marketing and children by checking out Food Marketing to Youth and other info from Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.)
5. Play Actively. Wright says it's key to keep your kids moving throughout the day as much as possible (and to join in on the fun when you can). She says, "Physical activity naturally stimulates chemicals that help clear glucose out of the blood and prevent diabetes." Smithson agrees, and encourages kids not only to increase play time, but to make sure it's active play. She says, "By increasing play time, kids are more apt to be physically active which will help balance their energy needs." For most kids, 60 minutes or more of physical activity is recommended daily. (For more ideas to help your kids—and entire family—stay fit, check out Making Physical Activity a Part of Your Child's Life by the CDC and Tips for Getting Active by the National Heart Lung, & Blood Institute (NHLBI)).
Image of woman at the supermarket with her son buying groceries via shutterstock.