As diabetes becomes more prevalent in the United States, so have myths about diabetes. It can be hard for parents to sort fiction from fact, and truly understand the causes and treatments of type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Abha Choudhary, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, answers six common questions about diabetes in kids.
1. Can you get diabetes from eating too much sugar?
One of the most common misconceptions about diabetes is that it is caused by sugar.
“Every time we see a child with a new diagnosis, parents ask if it is because of something they did,” says Dr. Choudhary. “Was it too much sugar? Was it the soda?”
Dr. Choudhary says when it comes to type 1 diabetes, many people don't know that its cause is not related to nutrition and sugar intake. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body loses its ability to make insulin. The exact cause is unknown, and there is no way to prevent it – no matter how much sugar is or is not consumed.
While type 2 diabetes can be related to gaining too much weight, it's not eating sugar alone that causes the condition. Any child who doesn't get enough activity and eats too many unhealthy foods, sugary or not, may be at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, especially if they gain weight. However, some children who have a healthy weight may also be at risk for type 2 diabetes due to their genetics.
2. How many types of diabetes are there?
Many people used to believe there were only two types of diabetes: one that affected kids (formerly referred to as "juvenile diabetes," now called type 1) and one that affected adults (formerly referred to as "adult-onset diabetes," now called type 2). However, we now know that children can also develop type 2 diabetes – and that in fact, there are more than just two types.
Dr. Choudhary explains that as doctors' understanding of diabetes grows, new types are identified and defined. These can include:
- Maturity-onset diabetes of the young (MODY)
- Steroid-induced diabetes
- Cystic-fibrosis-related diabetes
- Type 1.5 diabetes
These types of diabetes can be related to other conditions, medical treatments like chemotherapy, and other unknown causes.
3. Is diabetes hereditary?
Many people are concerned if diabetes can be passed down from a parent to a child. Dr. Choudhary explains that genetics can play a role, but that role depends on the type of diabetes. Some ethnicities are more likely to get diabetes than others. However, nutrition and weight play a much larger role in determining if a child develops type 2 diabetes.
"In a family, people eat the same food," says Dr. Choudhary. "If parents have type 2 diabetes and eat an unhealthy diet, their kids may get it too because they are eating the same food."
In type 1 diabetes, genetics do play a role, though it's not fully understood yet. If your family has a history of autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, lupus or Hashimoto's disease, your child is at a higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
4. Do people with diabetes have to eat special food?
Some people might think that a child with diabetes cannot have any sugary foods. But children with type 1 diabetes can eat any foods that other children can eat, whether it's chips or cupcakes, in moderation. However, parents and kids must carefully adjust their insulin dosage to account for any carbohydrate-heavy foods they eat. Dr. Choudhary encourages her patients with type 1 diabetes to eat healthy, well-balanced meals and avoid sugar or soda unless they have very low blood sugar.
Children with type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, should try to eat a healthy diet to manage their blood sugar. Though they can eat cake at birthday parties or enjoy a sugary dessert for a special occasion, children should do so in moderation. Children with type 2 diabetes should avoid the following foods:
- Juice, soda and other sweetened beverages
- Unhealthy snacks like chips, cookies or even dried fruit
- Fried foods
- White bread, rice or pasta (stick to whole grain)
- Fatty red meats
- Full-fat dairy products
If your child is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Dr. Choudhary encourages parents to help their child focus on a healthy diet full of vegetables, lean meat, low-fat dairy and whole grains.
5. Can you reverse or cure diabetes?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for type 1 diabetes. Physicians and researchers are still learning why the condition occurs, so no cure is available yet – though current studies are underway to find the cause.
However, type 2 diabetes can be reversed and stopped with healthy lifestyle changes.
"If kids with type 2 diabetes eat healthy foods and lose weight, we can stop using insulin to treat them," says Dr. Choudhary. "Sometimes we can even take them off medication completely. Type 2 diabetes can be reversed if the family is on board with healthy eating and exercise changes."
However, Dr. Choudhary warns that not all cases of type 2 diabetes can be reversed. If the pancreas (the organ that makes insulin) is too damaged, the child will live a life with diabetes. That's why early diagnosis and diet and exercise are so important.
6. Are there any home remedies for diabetes?
Home remedies are becoming more popular to help treat diabetes. Some people believe that apple cider vinegar, cinnamon or essential oils can help control blood sugar. However, research to support these claims is limited.
"We just don't have enough evidence to say that people with diabetes should use these remedies," says Dr. Choudhary. "As long as a remedy is safe, parents can try them, but they cannot replace medication or insulin."
Before using a home remedy, always talk to your physician about your plans. Essential oils in particular can be dangerous if too much is swallowed. You should always ensure your child's safety first.
The best home remedies for type 2 diabetes are diet and exercise. Ensuring your whole family eats better and moves more often can help your child improve his or her blood sugar and even reverse diabetes.
Learn how the diabetes and endocrinology experts at Children's Health help diagnose and treat diabetes in children of all ages.