Prediabetes is a scary-sounding, but important diagnosis. Here's what you need to know, from what exactly prediabetes is to the best prediabetic diet for kids.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
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Prediabetes and diabetes sound like grown-up problems, but they affect kids too. Here's everything you need to know to help your child if your doctor says they have prediabetes.

What is prediabetes?

Prediabetes happens when the blood sugar is higher than it should be—but not high enough to be type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes can turn into diabetes, and the earlier diabetes develops, the greater chance for complications (like kidney and vision problems) at a younger age. So the point is to catch it early and help turn things around.

What are prediabetes symptoms?

"There are frequently no symptoms at all," says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RD, author of Prediabetes: A Complete GuideAnd people typically have prediabetes for a while before it turns into diabetes. That's why testing for it is so important if your child is at higher risk.

Which kids are at risk for prediabetes?

According to the American Diabetes Association, kids should be screened for prediabetes and diabetes starting at age 10 (or at the onset of puberty) if they're overweight or obese and have one or more of these risk factors:

  • Mother who has a history of diabetes or gestational diabetes (diabetes while pregnant)
  • Family history of type 2 diabetes in a first- or second-degree relative
  • Higher-risk race/ethnicity including Native American, African American, Latino, Asian American, or Pacific Islander
  • Signs of insulin resistance or conditions associated with insulin resistance like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or a condition called Acanthosis Nigricans, when the skin darkens and thickens on the neck or armpits.

Is there a good prediabetes diet? 

"My first recommendation is to find an alternative to sugary drinks like soda, sweet tea, and punch," says Weisenberger. Since sugary drinks aren't good for anyone, simply keep them out of the house.

Then add lots of nutritious, plant-based foods, like vegetables, beans and lentils, whole grains, and nuts to your family’s diet—but go slowly so the changes feel doable (not like a punishment). For instance, instead of a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs, Weisenberger suggests switching to whole grain pasta and including an extra veggie, like serving a side salad or adding diced carrots to the sauce recipe.

For kids who are picky eaters, zero in on the healthy foods your child already likes and add them to other favorites—like a bowl of blueberries with a small scoop of ice cream instead of a large bowl of only ice cream. If your child likes snap peas, serve those on a snack plate along with other well-liked foods like crackers and cheese.

Can kids with prediabetes eat fruit?

Yes! Fruit contains carbohydrate, which affects blood sugar—but it's a very healthy food, especially for kids with prediabetes. "People with prediabetes are not at risk of having a very high blood sugar like people with diabetes are. So this is the perfect opportunity to learn to enjoy all types of health-boosting foods, even those that are carbohydrate-rich," says Weisenberger. In fact, she says that a diet with high amounts of berries, nuts, and yogurt is actually linked to a lower risk for type 2 diabetes.

How else can I help my child?

Find ways for the whole family to be more active. Instead of enforcing a certain amount of exercise every day, pick physical activities that the family can do together. And encourage your child to participate in an after-school sport that she likes.

But whatever changes you make to eating and exercise, remember: These changes should apply to the whole family, not just the person who has prediabetes. And keep it positive. For example, instead of saying something like "You can't eat those cookies. Get a piece of fruit instead," say something positive like "Let's save the cookies for another time, and we can all enjoy some fruit now," advises Weisenberger.

"For a lot of families, this is a very big change and can seem overwhelming," she says. "Be patient with yourself and other members of the family. Solid change takes time. It takes a change in attitude and strategies and then eventually habits."

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Parents magazine Contributing Editor and registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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