Until recently, type 2 diabetes was also known as adult-onset diabetes. Now, the adult-onset prefix has been dropped because so many children are developing the condition.
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that results when the body can't make enough or properly use insulin, the hormone that helps convert glucose into energy the body can use.
"In the early 1990s, 2 to 4 percent of our patients were children with type 2 diabetes," says Francine R. Kaufman, M.D., a spokeswoman with the American Diabetes Association and a renowned pediatric endocrinologist in Los Angeles. "Now, it may be up to 25 percent."
In general, those with type 2 diabetes have abnormally high levels of circulating glucose (blood sugar) because their pancreas either produces little or no insulin or their bodies are resistant to insulin that is produced. (Insulin is the hormone that transports the glucose into the body's cells.) This resistance makes it difficult for the insulin to get glucose into the cells of the body. Like adults with type 2 diabetes, children with the condition are at increased risk for serious health problems such as heart disease, kidney disease, and blindness later in life.
Type 2 diabetes has an inherited component. Still, biology isn't destiny.
"To get type 2 diabetes, you also have to have an environmental trigger," says Dr. Kaufman. "For most kids, that environmental trigger is obesity."
Weight gain, or fat, especially in the abdomen, increases the body's demand for insulin and interferes with the body's ability to use it properly.
"To prevent type 2 diabetes, help your children stay fit and avoid becoming overweight," says Dr. Kaufman. "Being of normal weight doesn't stress the pancreas as much, and exercise helps the body become more efficient at using glucose."
Certain racial and ethnic groups are at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes. These include African Americans, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, and some Americans with Asian or Pacific Island backgrounds.
Be a role model
Helping kids stay lean and fit is a tall order, considering that twice as many children and adolescents are overweight or obese compared with 30 years ago, according to 2004 statistics from the CDC.
"The problem is kids are bombarded with messages from television commercials to want junk food, to not understand what a portion size is and to drink sugar-containing beverages like soda," says Dr. Kaufman. "And many schools promote excess weight by allowing in-school vending machines and eliminating physical education classes. As a result, there's little opportunity for many children to get meaningful amounts of exercise."
Still, you can help your kids keep their weight in check. In fact, your encouragement and actions may be the only thing they've got to counteract societal messages that promote weight gain.
"As a parent, you're your child's first teacher," says Sheah Rarback, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a Miami child nutrition expert.
All told, your example carries a lot of importance, so make sure you practice what you preach. To get your kids into the exercise habit, for example, do what you want your kids to do rather than just urging them to go outside and play.
Participating as a family in lifestyle kinds of exercise, such as bike riding, hiking, walking, running, basketball, and tennis—fun activities that can carry over into adulthood—or even just playing in the park sends a strong message.
"Your kids will associate being active with fun times with the family. By virtue of your example and participation, exercise will become something they want to do," says Dr. Rarback.
Eat dinner together
Likewise, to expand your children's palates and help them learn to make healthy food choices, which, in turn, can help them avoid obesity, "make family meal time a priority at least a few times a week," says Dr. Rarback.
Why is this so important? "At family dinners, children are often exposed to a greater variety of foods and they see other family members enjoying them," says Dr. Rarback.