Published on August 02, 2022

Child with diabetes exercising with mom.

Healthy habits help prevent type 2 diabetes in children

The rate of type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents is increasing. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five children ages 12 to 18 has prediabetes, which eventually can lead to type 2 diabetes.

People often mention blood sugar, or blood glucose, when they talk about diabetes. When you eat, your body turns food into glucose, which is energy for the body. Blood glucose levels rise after eating. Insulin is a hormone that helps deliver glucose to the body at the cellular level and keeps glucose levels within the normal range.

When your blood sugar level is repeatedly raised as a result of eating foods high in sugar or starch, your body’s need for insulin increases. This is called insulin resistance. If insulin resistance continues, over time the body may need more insulin than it can make, and you will be at greater risk for type 2 diabetes.

Everyone needs balanced blood glucose and insulin levels to function properly. Poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, stress and inadequate sleep can lead to insulin resistance. Parents can help prevent insulin resistance in children by promoting healthy eating, exercise and sleep habits.

The American Heart Association recommends that children and teens consume less than 25 grams, or six teaspoons, of added sugar a day. Soda, desserts, juice and processed foods are all high in added sugar.

Added sugar can quickly add up over the course of a day. A single can of regular soda has two days’ worth of added sugar for children and teens. An 8-ounce glass of apple juice has the sugar level of multiple apples but no healthy fiber.

When someone eats an apple, it takes time for the sugar to enter the bloodstream. In contrast, the sugar from juice enters the bloodstream in less than 15 minutes, which raises glucose quickly. Aim to eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit beverages.

Processed foods that come in packages and containers have few of the nutrients developing children need to thrive and should be avoided. They have added sugars, salt, flavorings and ingredients that artificially trigger pleasurable tastes, making kids crave  more unhealthy processed food.

Instead of using processed foods, buy natural, whole foods and prepare meals at home. Choose dishes made with a variety of colorful unprocessed ingredients.

A piece of fruit makes a healthy snack. Steamed vegetables, roasted poultry, unsalted beans and other healthy foods become delicious, satisfying dishes when seasoned with herbs and spices. Slow eating and fiber-filled foods that require more chewing are associated with lower rates of obesity and diabetes.

Drinking water is the natural way to help with digestion and stay hydrated. A good way to encourage family members to drink more water is to serve it at meals. Ice and a slice of lemon or lime can make water more enjoyable.

Physical activity contributes to overall health as well as balanced blood sugar and insulin levels. Parents can help children reduce long periods of sitting by encouraging exercise at regular intervals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends one hour or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day of the week for children ages 6 to 17. This includes at least three days of both aerobic activities that strengthen bones, such as running and jumping, and also muscle-building activities like climbing and doing push-ups.

Sleep is restorative after a busy day. Any disruption in sleep affects metabolism, insulin and glucose functioning. Poor sleep on a regular basis can lead to weight gain, obesity and the risk of developing and worsening diabetes.

Young children need up to 13 hours of quality sleep. Adolescents should get up to 12 hours, and teens still need 9 to 10 hours of restful, uninterrupted sleep a night.

The best way to prevent diabetes in children is by helping them develop lifelong healthy habits. Talk to your doctor if you have any health concerns about your children, and ask about ways to prevent diabetes, illness and disease.