Bad news from America’s “diabesity” epidemic: A new report says that the number of teens with diabetes or prediabetes more than doubled between 1999 and 2008 – from 9 percent to 23 percent. That’s nearly one in four kids. And it doesn’t include another group worth watching: Kids and teens with metabolic syndrome, an early warning sign for future blood-sugar problems (as well as for blood pressure and cholesterol problems, too.)
One in ten young teens may have metabolic syndrome, say researchers who checked up on over 1,200 eighth-graders in three states for a 2008 study. They looked at five factors: A wide waistline, higher-than-healthy blood pressure, raised triglycerides (a blood fat), lower-than-healthy levels of helpful HDL cholesterol, and blood sugar. In general, having three of these can mean metabolic syndrome. But since healthy numbers for most of these vary with a kids’ age and gender, it’s worth talking with your child’s doctor if you’re concerned.
But tracking numbers isn’t the way to avoid diabetes. A couple of healthy habits can. A few years ago, I interviewed child diabetes expert Francine Kaufman, M.D., former head of the Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and author of Diabesity The Obesity-Diabetes Epidemic That Threatens America--And What We Must Do to Stop It (Bantam Dell/Random House). Her advice:
- Eat well. “Aim for at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day—and more is better,” Kaufman says. “Cut out high-sugar snacks, limit sugary desserts, and switch from refined grains like white bread to whole-grain, higher-fiber breads and grains.” Replace soda and sweet drinks (like bottled, sweetened iced teas and energy drinks) with low-fat or fat-free milk, unsweetened or lightly-sweetened homemade iced tea. Have less fast food (stop by the supermarket for quick, healthier take-out like a rotisserie chicken, salad and whole-grain bread). And cut back on saturated fat (the kind in full-fat milk, cheese and ice cream as well as in fatty meats and baked goods. It messes with your body’s ability to absorb blood sugar.
- Go for active fun. Take a family walk, hit the pool over the weekend, drag out the Frisbee, croquet set and kickball, take everybody to the local playground and be the crazy parent climbing and swinging with the kids. Kids and teens need 60 minutes of activity daily.
- Turn out the lights – including theirs. Kids who get enough sleep get some protection against blood sugar-processing problems. Experts say getting a good night’s sleep may help teens (and adults) lower diabetes risk. The reason? It may be that sleep deprivation increases levels of stress hormones, which in turn interfere with the way cells absorb blood sugar.
- Ask about their risk. Being overweight and obese increase their odds. So do genetics. Your child’s risk may be higher than normal if diabetes runs in the family, or if she is of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American descent. Also look for patches of thickened, velvety, or darker skin behind the neck, under arms or at the groin. Called acanthosis nigricans, it’s a sign of insulin resistance — meaning that your child’s body isn’t processing blood sugar normally.
- Don’t overlook symptoms. Often, diabetes has no symptoms. But common signs of type 2 diabetes include frequent infections that are not easily healed, frequent urination, extreme hunger but loss of weight, unusual thirst, blurred vision, extreme weakness and fatigue, irritability and mood changes, nausea and vomiting, dry, itchy skin and tingling or loss of feeling in the hands or feet. For more information, check out the online diabetes-information pages of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and The Nemours Foundation’s KidsHealth website.