Prediabetes in Children: A Growing Problem

Prediabetes is a condition common in adults, but now we are seeing the problem of prediabetes in children more and more often as well. A recent study featured in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that close to 20% of children ages 12-18 and nearly 25% of young adult ages 19-34 are considered prediabetic. Prediabetes is a condition that increases the risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke if no lifestyle changes are made. If left untreated, 15-30% of people diagnosed with prediabetes will go on to develop Type 2 diabetes within 5 years.

Prediabetes occurs when blood sugar levels are elevated out of the normal range but are not high enough to be in the range for a diabetes diagnosis. This condition has often been associated with adults over the age of 45 who are also overweight or obese. Oftentimes prediabetes is linked to excess body fat, particularly around mid-section, and inactivity. The growing incidence of prediabetes in children is probably in direct connection with the concerning levels of pediatric obesity. The diagnosis of prediabetes means the body is either producing less insulin, has decreased sensitivity to insulin, or a combination of both physiological changes.

Because prediabetes has no symptoms, many people have prediabetes and go undiagnosed. Risks for developing diabetes in children include:

The child is overweight for age and height

He or she spends more time sitting then being active

A parent or sibling has diabetes

The mother had gestational diabetes (a type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy)

Prediabetes is a great action stage for making choices to improve health and reduce future risk for disease, as prediabetes is reversible. The lifestyle changes needed to decrease a child’s risk for developing diabetes are the same changes often recommended to an adult. It is often recommended to make changes as a whole family, rather than singling out the child. The whole family will likely benefit from a healthier lifestyle anyway. The following four strategies can help reduce the risk of developing of type 2 diabetes in children with prediabetes:

1. Get Active.

Getting regular physical activity helps the body use glucose as fuel. Medical professionals recommend at least 60 minutes of active playtime every day for kids. This can be split up into shorter spurts of 10-20 minutes throughout the day. Finding after school sports or activities that interest the child or making active living a priority within the family can be helpful. Taking bike rides on weekends or making an after-dinner family walk a new daily routine are ways you can add activity for the whole family to enjoy together.

2. Eat Consistent Meals.

Scheduling meals to be around the same time each day can help with blood glucose control. Eating consistently throughout the day helps keep blood glucose and hunger more steady, which can help control portions and overeating. Having smaller portions, a few times a day, also allows the body to have more constant energy without such large swings in blood sugar.

3. Choose a Healthy, Balanced Diet.

Children benefit from a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein foods, and calcium-rich foods. Focusing on whole foods and limiting added sugars, processed, and pre-packaged items will help keep nutrient content up while avoiding nutrient-poor, higher calorie items. And watch out for drinks…many drinks popular with kids are loaded with empty calories, added sugars, and leave the stomach quickly causing little if any impact on appetite. Limit eating out and try to have more sit-down dinners as a family. To read more about the benefits of family meals, read our blog here.

4. Reach and Maintain a Healthy Weight.

With children, it is important to be careful about focusing solely on their weight. Adopting healthier eating and exercise patterns and allowing their body to get to a weight that is healthy for them should be the goal. Working together with the child’s healthcare provider to determine a healthy weight goal is the best advice. Oftentimes a modest weight loss of even 5-10% can help improve glucose numbers.

Being healthy together as a family, being good role models, and teaching children the basics of healthy living is our responsibility as adults. While the statistics on prediabetes in children is concerning, the good news is that there is much that we can do to decrease these numbers and prevent many kids from developing Type 2 diabetes in the future. 

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