Until recently, children and teens were rarely diagnosed with type two diabetes (T2D), however now about one-third of American youth are overweight and at risk of developing this preventable disease. It is projected that by 2050, there may be a 4-fold increase in the prevalence of youth-onset T2D. What exactly is T2D and what can you do now to help reduce the risk of your child developing this condition?
What is Diabetes?
There are two different kinds of diabetes – Type 1 and Type 2. In this article, we will be focusing on T2D, however, it is helpful to understand the differences between these two types of conditions. Type 1 diabetes (T1D) usually occurs in childhood and is an autoimmune condition where the body attacks the pancreas, causing it to stop producing insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps lower glucose, or blood sugar levels when the levels go up, such as after eating. Insulin helps to regulate the body’s metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and protein and provides energy to the cells.
T2D occurs when the pancreas does produce insulin but the body becomes resistant to it (known as “insulin resistance”), causing high blood glucose levels. Over time, high blood glucose can contribute to problems with the eyes, heart, nerves, and kidneys and increases the risk of developing serious illness and infections.
Prevalence of T2D in Youth
The prevalence of T2D in youth has increased around the world alongside an increase in obesity. The Center for Disease Control predicts that of those born in the year 2000, one out of three American youths will also develop T2D. And the rate of new cases of T2D in youths increased by nearly 5% annually since 2002. This is an alarming trend that leads to long-term health problems!
The American Diabetes Association recommends screening for T2D beginning at 10 years of age or the onset of puberty in children who are overweight or obese and have two additional risk factors, such as a family history of type 2 diabetes, minority race, or signs of insulin resistance, including fatigue, increased hunger and thirst, frequent urination, blurry vision, and mood swings. T2D in youth disproportionately affects minority groups – the incidence of T2D among those 10 to 19 years old is highest among American Indians, followed by African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian or Pacific Islanders.
Diagnosis of T2D typically occurs in teens; one reason for this is because hormones present during puberty make it harder for the body to use insulin. This is especially true for teenage girls, who are more likely to develop T2D. As you can see, it is extremely important to help children take charge of their health while they’re young!
Why this Increase in T2D?
Why has there been such an alarming increase in T2D in children and teens? This condition is driven by a combination of an increased consumption of processed and fast foods, lack of exercise, poor sleep, increased stress, gut dysfunction, and environmental toxins. Our modern diet of refined carbohydrates, fructose, and highly processed seed oils, such as corn oil, and the tendency to move away from consuming real food instead for factory made ultra-processed foods is a primary contributor to this increase in T2D, particularly in children. A diet consisting of these “food like substances” made in factories is low in vitamins and minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, which help protect cells from damage. If you’re buying food that comes in a box, package, or has been made shelf-stable with a lot of ingredients listed that don’t sound like whole foods, then these are all red flags you want to be aware of as contributors to T2D.
Obesity in American children and teens has tripled in the last three decades and this is largely in part due to the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. Sugary beverages containing high fructose corn syrup are being consumed by about 2 out of 3 children on a daily basis. We know from research that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, including soft drinks and 100% fruit juices, increases the risk of developing T2D. This added sugar and calories also contribute to dental cavities, weight gain, and behavioral issues in children.
In addition to a nutrient-poor diet filled with junk foods, lifestyle factors such as exercise, stress, and sleep increase T2D risk. Eighty percent of teens around the world are not getting enough physical activity, yet exercise is a powerful tool to help reduce the risk of T2D. Regular exercise can help reverse prediabetes and reduce the need for diabetes medications.
At least 60 minutes per day of regular aerobic exercise (activity that increases the heart rate) is recommended for kids in order to support healthy blood sugar levels. This can be broken down into smaller intervals if need be. In addition, exercise helps reduce the impact of stress on kids, which can contribute to dysregulated blood sugar levels and an increase T2D risk. Last, but of equal importance, is the role poor sleep plays in developing T2D. When your child doesn’t get enough good-quality sleep (about 8-10 hours is ideal), this contributes to insulin resistance the following day. You can help your child implement healthy sleep habits, such as reducing screen time two hours before bed, helping them relax before bedtime, keeping a regular sleep and wake schedule, daily exercise, and eating consistent whole foods meals and snacks in order to support healthy blood sugar levels and overall health.
Stay tuned for our next article with our favorite nutrition, lifestyle, and family tips to help your child reduce the potential for developing T2D!