Not so long ago, type 2 diabetes (T2D) was considered an adults-only condition. Today that’s no longer the case. According to an American Diabetes Association (ADA) study, the rate of new cases of T2D in children continues to increase. Type 2 diabetes progresses the longer a person has it, leading to a greater risk for complications. This makes it all the more concerning when children are diagnosed.
The ADA attributes this increase to the growing number of obese children (today there are more than 13 million in the U.S.) and recently published recommendations for T2D prevention and management that include screening children who are overweight. The recommendations also call for the use of medication and culturally-sensitive education and lifestyle management programs that can assist parents in providing a healthy home environment.
Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity
People with T2D have blood sugar levels that are higher than normal. The body needs blood sugar (glucose) for energy and cell development, manufacturing it from the foods people eat and absorbing it with the help of the hormone insulin. Chronic inflammation, triggered by the stress obesity causes throughout the body, can make cells resistant to insulin, which is a major risk factor for T2D. Complications of T2D include blindness, heart disease, kidney failure and lower limb amputation.
As with adults, genetics can predispose some children to T2D. For example, African American children, especially girls, have a higher rate of insulin resistance than Caucasian children. But T2D is primarily a lifestyle disease that typically appears after years of poor diet, lack of physical activity and unhealthy weight gain. In the U.S. alone, approximately 34 percent of adults are obese and their children are catching up. Between 15 and 20 percent of American youth are also obese.
“We know the biggest risk factor [for T2D] that has changed is obesity,” said Dr. Angela Lennon, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Kansas Hospital, where many patients are obese children between the ages of 12 and 14. “The CDC predicts that of those born in the year 2000, one out of three will also develop diabetes.”
What Can Parents Do?
Beginning with what they eat and how they exercise, parents can reduce the risk for obesity and T2D in their children. When parents model healthy eating and exercise behaviors, children are more likely to do the same. Here are some suggestions from the CDC:
At meal time:
- Have meals together as a family as often as you can
- Drink more water and fewer sugary drinks
- Include fruits and vegetables with small portions of the main course
- Don’t insist children clean their plates
- Eat slowly and only at the dinner table, not in front of the TV or computer
- Reward children with praise instead of food
- Aim for your child to get an hour of physical activity every day. This can be done in 10-15 minute increments. Encourage this by:
- Asking children what activities they like best and encouraging them to participate
- Starting slow and staying positive
- Planning active family outings together like walking, hiking or riding a bike
- Limiting screen time to two hours a day
Helping Your Overweight Child
Children who are overweight often get teased and bullied at school, making it more difficult to have an open, honest conversation at home about weight, self-esteem and body image. Parents can help by:
- Emphasizing that no one should be teased, whether it’s about weight, skin color or anything else and alerting the teacher about the bullying.
- Never making negative comments about your child’s body or weight at home.
- Focusing on your child’s health rather than their weight. Compliment your child on behaviors like playing outside instead of playing video games, rather than a loss of a few pounds.
- Talking with your child’s health care professional privately for advice on lifestyle choices you can make at home to assist your child.
Approximately 30 million people in the U.S. have diabetes and another 84 million have prediabetes. The majority of people with prediabetes go on to develop T2D. With lifestyle changes that begin at home, these numbers can be reduced.
The LHSFNA has developed a number of materials that can help educate Laborers and their families on how to reduce their risk for T2D and obesity. These include our Diabetes Health Alert and our Nutrition & Fitness for Laborers series. Additional materials on nutrition, diet and general wellness can be ordered by going to www.lhsfna.org and clicking on Publications. For more information, call 202-628-5465.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]