Twenty years ago, it was nearly unheard of for children and teens to develop type 2 diabetes. But as obesity has increased among these groups, so has this chronic condition. Today, more than 5,000 young people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes every year.
Without proper care, these youth face the risk of long-term complications such as kidney failure, eye problems, nerve damage, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
By encouraging kids to live a healthy lifestyle, parents and teachers can help them prevent or manage diabetes.
What is diabetes?
Our bodies turn most of the food we eat into glucose or sugar for energy. The pancreas, an organ near the stomach, makes a hormone called insulin, which helps glucose get into our cells.
But diabetes disrupts this system. With type 1 diabetes (once called juvenile diabetes), the body doesn’t produce insulin. With type 2 diabetes, the body can’t use its own insulin efficiently. This causes glucose to build up in the blood, eventually leading to health problems and complications. Learn more about the different types of diabetes.
While type 1 diabetes is primarily genetic, type 2 diabetes is more heavily influenced by behaviors.
“Increased insulin resistance is directly related to increased obesity,” said Jim Dudl, MD, diabetes clinical lead for Kaiser Permanente’s Care Management Institute. “That’s why it’s so important for kids to maintain a healthy weight by getting regular exercise, eating well and avoiding empty-calorie foods such as candy and sugary sodas.”
The power of prevention
Parents, teachers and school staff can play an important role in decreasing the risk of type 2 diabetes in kids by encouraging them to eat well and get regular physical activity.
“What we do is mainly controlled by habits,” said Dr. Dudl, “so building good habits at home and at school is a great start.”
- Talk with kids about the importance of healthy eating. Encourage them to eat fruits or vegetables with every meal, and to limit foods that are high in saturated fat and added sugars. Visit MyPlate Kids’ Place to find graphics that illustrate the components of a healthy meal.
- Eliminate sugary sodas at lunch and dinner. Replace with water or drinks that don’t have added sugar.
- Plan healthy classroom celebrations with snacks such as sliced fruit and low-fat cheese and yogurt instead of cookies and cupcakes.
- Start a tradition of walking to school once a week. Or break up the school day with five minutes of jumping jacks or other activity.
- Make a plan for kids to exercise 30 to 60 minutes every day doing something they enjoy. Record and reward their efforts.
- Make sure children and teens are getting adequate sleep, which plays a critical role in regulating hunger.
Remember that even small steps can make a big difference over time. “If you are overweight, losing 5 to 7 pounds and exercising 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, can reduce your diabetes risk by 60 percent over 3 years,” said Dr. Dudl.
Living healthy with diabetes
For students already living with diabetes, cooperation between home and school is essential in supporting their health. These students may need help taking medications and checking their blood sugar levels, and special permission to eat snacks during class to manage their blood sugar levels.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends creating a diabetes management plan to help school staff handle emergencies during school, field trips and sports. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers additional diabetes resources for school personnel.
By working together to support student health, parents and teachers can help prevent type 2 diabetes and ensure that schools provide the best environment possible for children already living with the condition.