Type 2 diabetes has been on the rise among adults for more than a decade. But a more recent—and more troubling—trend is the current increase in type 2 diabetes in children and teens.
As a result of inactivity, along with diets high in processed foods, fats, sugars and salts, we’re seeing diseases in children that were previously only seen in adults. Top among these is type 2 diabetes.
The COVID-19 pandemic—and associated school closings and lockdowns—only made matters worse. The number of kids ages 10 to 19 diagnosed with type 2 diabetes rose 77% during the first year of the pandemic. Sports and things that kept children active all shut down. Children spent more time inside and more time in front of screens, leading to weight gain and increased risk of developing diabetes.
What Is Type 2 Diabetes?
Your pancreas makes a hormone called insulin, designed to make sure sugar gets processed and stored properly in your body. Ideally, the insulin your body produces keeps your blood sugar levels evenly regulated. But when your weight isn’t in a ‘healthy’ range, your body doesn’t respond to insulin as well and your blood sugar is not well controlled.
Sustained levels of high blood sugar lead to the development of type 2 diabetes. Left untreated, chronically high blood sugar can increase the risk of heart conditions, kidney disease and other serious problems.
Making smart lifestyle changes—including a healthier diet and more exercise—can improve blood sugar. When that’s not enough, you may need medication (oral pills or insulin injections) to control the condition. If your child is diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes, their doctor will want to closely monitor their blood sugar levels to ensure that treatment is working.
How To Help Prevent Diabetes In Kids
Children at risk of diabetes are often overweight or obese, with a body mass index (BMI) in the 85th percentile or higher. Helping your child maintain a healthy weight is the most important way you can help reduce their risk of diabetes throughout life.
A healthy diet can also reduce your child’s risk of developing diabetes. If your child has already been diagnosed with diabetes, eating well can help regulate blood sugar levels to better manage the condition. Eating sugar doesn’t cause diabetes, but a diet that has a lot of sugar, fat and unhealthy foods will likely lead to weight gain. That can cause type 2 diabetes.
Getting lots of physical activity is important for weight control as well as your child’s overall mental and physical health. But there’s also plenty of evidence that exercise itself has a positive effect on how the body uses insulin, which in turn helps better regulate blood sugar levels.
Make Healthy Habits A Family Event
The good news for kids who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is that it’s possible to reverse it with changes to diet and lifestyle. That is why it’s so important to not just rely on medication to help regulate blood sugar and manage diabetes symptoms. As a family, you change the culture of your home and set your children up for healthier lives.
Your family can start by creating healthier eating habits. That means learning—along with your kids—what foods are healthiest and which should find only limited space in your diets. Get your kids involved in meal planning, shopping and food preparation for your family meals. Eating more home-cooked meals and increasing the amounts of fruits and vegetables you all eat to five or more servings per day is essential. Try to limit the number of packaged and highly processed foods in your pantry, as well as visits to fast food restaurants.
You can also make daily exercise a part of your family’s routine. Inspire your kids to be more active by modeling an active lifestyle yourself. Come up with creative ways to move together as a family. You can start taking family walks together after dinner, playing Frisbee at the park or having a dance party in the living room. If possible, also encourage your kids to join some organized activities—such as a local soccer club, swim lessons or a basketball team. That way, physical activity and education are built into your kids’ schedule each week. That helps them make activity a regular part of their lifestyle.
To find a pediatrician at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.
Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in midtown Detroit and Sterling Heights. Learn more about Dr. Leatherwood Cannon.