Pre-diabetes in children has doubled in the last 20 years. To learn what parents can do to reduce the risk of their child developing prediabetes, Dr. Naveen Uli, the medical director of the Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology at Akron Children’s Hospital, answers some questions about this alarming trend.
Why are cases increasing?
The primary driver is the increase in overweight and obese kids. Weight gain has gone up significantly over the last two decades in children.
What happens once a child develops diabetes?
Once a child develops full blown diabetes, that triggers a cascade of other organ involvement and other medical conditions, and that raises the risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, and sleep apnea. So that’s really a cascade of health problems that are then lifelong.
What leads to the development of pre-diabetes?
Diet and inactivity are some primary causes. We have seen an increase in the total amount of calories consumed and the amount of empty calories consumed. And along with that, there is also the decrease in physical activity and increase in sedentary behaviors, like increased screen time. And so they’re consuming more calories than before on a daily basis, at the same time, their bodies are burning less calories and the net effect is that there is increased storage of calories and fat, which leads to weight gain. This puts a lot of stress on their pancreas, which is the source of insulin and is key to maintaining normal blood sugars. And the end result is that blood sugar starts going up.
Do kids’ and teens’ schedules play a role in the development of prediabetes?
It certainly matters. When there is breakdown in the schedule, there is eating on the go and more reliance on prepared, highly processed foods. Highly processed foods have less nutrients and are loaded with empty calories like sugars, fat and salt. Kids are also putting a lot of activities on their plates, and so sleep is decreasing. The effect is an increase in weight, and then that leads to the increase in their risk for prediabetes and diabetes.
How does screen time play a role in the development of prediabetes in kids?
A lot of education happens on the screen these days, and COVID has certainly affected this. Screen time has really gone through the roof as a result. And this was happening even before the pandemic, but the pandemic just made it worse. I think we have yet to see the effect of the pandemic in terms of the increase in obesity in children and what effect that has on their risk for diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and all those health consequences of increased weight gain.
What are some ways parents can prevent prediabetes in their kids?
Starting very early is really important. So whenever you take your child for a well visit, pay attention to the weight trends of your child. And also have the pediatrician plot the body mass index, which is a calculation of how the weight compares to the height. If that shows a rising trend very early on, that’s a clue that you should pay attention there and nip it in the bud very early. Because once the pounds are on the child, it is difficult to reverse that.
And of course, pay attention to your child’s schedule and eating habits. If you can, try to cook fresh vegetables, fruits, less processed foods, cut down on sugar-added drinks, the juices and sodas. Make sure your child gets at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day. And then the screen time recommendation is to keep time under two hours.
Do you have questions about prediabetes, diabetes or your child’s health? Schedule an appointment with a pediatrician.