At one time, type 2 diabetes was known as adult-onset diabetes and the disease was rarely associated with children. But according to recent studies, the number of children and teens diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is on the rise. The culprit? Another condition also on the rise in children: obesity.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body doesn't use insulin properly and can't keep blood sugar levels normal. Type 1 diabetes, which usually is diagnosed in children and young adults, occurs when the body doesn't produce insulin, and is commonly considered an autoimmune disorder.
"Parents often feel a sense of relief when they find out their child has type 2 diabetes and not type 1— the type of diabetes they label 'the serious, scary one,'" says Olga Gupta, M.D., pediatric endocrinologist and medical director at Children’s Health℠ and researcher at the Touchstone Diabetes Center at UT Southwestern. "But type 2 diabetes is a serious disease that like type 1, can cause lifelong side effects and health risks like kidney problems, nerve disease, eyesight issues and heart problems."
The good news is that type 2 diabetes, unlike type 1, is preventable. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can reduce your child’s risk of developing this lifelong condition.
Weight, and where it is, matters
Children, like adults, come in all shapes and sizes. That means a healthy weight varies too. You can't necessarily tell if your child is overweight by just looking at him, but research has shown that people carrying more weight around the middle have a higher risk for diabetes. One way to identify potential weight problems is with Body Mass Index (BMI), a screening tool that uses a ratio of height and weight to estimate how much body fat a person is carrying.
A high BMI increases risk of developing serious health conditions, including type 2 diabetes. However, simple lifestyle changes can have a big impact on warding off this disease.
“Exercise and diet are the most important ways to prevent obesity and prevent and treat type 2 diabetes,” says Dr. Gupta. “If your child has type 2 diabetes, treatment may require medication alongside exercise and diet, but being active and making good nutrition choices are key to keeping kids healthy.”
Benefits of exercise
Kids don't have to be part of a team playing on a field or court for hours every week to reap the benefits of exercise. A quick game of tag after dinner or a daily walk around the block can have a positive impact on health. Whether it's part of your family's lifestyle to prevent weight problems and diabetes or part of diabetes treatment, regular exercise:
- Lowers blood sugar even without medication
- Burns extra calories and fat to help manage weight
- Improves blood pressure
- Increases energy
- Helps handle stress
Some kids need encouragement to get moving. Making exercise a fun part of your family's activities may be all the motivation they need:
- Walk the dog
- Ride bikes to the library or store when you can
- Explore trails or different neighborhoods in your town
- Move with play, like hide-and-seek and capture the flag
- Include your child’s friends
- Track everyone's progress
If your child has diabetes, you can talk with his or her doctor about how exercise affects blood sugar levels and how often you should check them.
Importance of a healthy diet
Keeping your family healthy and managing diabetes both require healthy nutrition. Choose high-quality foods that pack a nutritional punch — lean meats, whole grains, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. It also means replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water and limiting fried foods and sweets.
How much your child eats is important, too. Food portions have ballooned in the U.S., making it easier for everyone to eat more than they need. Eating healthy amounts and being mindful of being full are good eating habits that help your child maintain a healthy weight.
Making lifestyle changes can be hard for a child. Fortunately, exercise and healthy eating is good for everyone. Make a healthy lifestyle a family affair by shopping for and cooking healthy foods and being active together. If you suspect your child has symptoms of diabetes, visit your family pediatrician or an endocrinology specialist.
Learn how the endocrinology experts at Children’s Health help diagnose and treat diabetes in children of all ages.