This has to be one of the saddest statistics ever printed in a medical journal: The number of American children taking medication for type 2 diabetes more than doubled from 2002 to 2005, particularly among teenagers. That may be partly because more children are being screened for diabetes or because drugs are more often being used to treat metabolic syndrome. But the recent rise in childhood obesity is the obvious first suspect because overweight and obese children are more than twice as likely as their normal-weight peers to develop the disease.
Diabetes is a horrible disease, and no child should have to start dealing with it as a teenager. It's time for us parents to think about how to diabetes-proof our children. Here are five ways to start:
1. Get physical. A recent study found that exercising 30 minutes a day and losing 5 to 10 percent of body weight worked better than drugs in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Physical activity helps control blood glucose, weight, and blood pressure—all risk factors for diabetes. Last month, the surgeon general recommended that kids and teens get at least an hour of physical activity a day, including bone- and muscle-building exercise at least three times a week. Because so many kids are cooped up indoors all day, getting exercise can be a challenge. Advocate for more PE at school or sponsored after-school programs, so kids can exercise safely. Make after-dinner walks a family tradition.
2. Put the whole family on a healthful diet. Children eat what their parents eat. And though we parents are humans—I know I'm not the only parent who sneaks chocolate in the kitchen while urging my offspring to have a carrot—health is the best possible gift we can bestow on our children. The food industry spends billions each year advertising junk food to kids. But that doesn't mean we parents have to roll over. Study after study shows that children think their parents' opinion matters most. Even teenagers think so, amazingly enough. So, use that power to promote the glory of celery and brown rice.
3. Read labels in the supermarket, and demand nutritional information in restaurants. Here's practical advice from nutritionists on how to suss out hidden fat and calories in foods. More and more restaurants are including nutritional info on menus, but it's up to us to make french fries an occasional treat rather than daily fodder.
4. If your child's already overweight, get serious help. Scientists have put a lot of effort into figuring out how to help children lose weight and keep it off. My colleague Deborah Kotz explains how to help children lose weight successfully, including five things parents should never say about their kids' weight.
5. Accept the fact that there's no quick fix. We live in a world that seeks quick solutions, but there's no magic wand to wave away this threat to our children's health. Being a parent is hard work. Where our grandparents lay awake at night worrying about how to protect their children from polio and TB, we've got to figure out a way to protect our beloved little ones from a world where 8-year-olds take insulin for type 2 diabetes.