All children need nutritious diets and regular exercise. But for those with some form of diabetes or prediabetes, ignoring these guidelines can put additional strain on their organs, endanger their sight or even their lives. Here’s some expert advice about how parents can support their children in maintaining healthy lifestyle habits to cope with the daily risks of childhood diabetes.
Recognizing the symptoms of diabetes and seeking a physician’s assistance for early evaluation is crucial.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) list of symptoms includes frequent urination, and extreme fatigue, thirst and hunger, despite eating.
Weight loss—despite increased eating—can indicate type 1, an autoimmune condition, in which the body fails to produce the hormone, insulin.
With the more common type 2—where glucose levels rise above normal—tingling, pain, or numbness sometimes occurs in the feet or hands. Blurry vision or cuts and bruises that heal slowly can also be signs. Sometimes type 2 has no recognizable symptoms.
Healthy eating is key to reducing the risk for diabetes or worsening the condition. Provide a balanced diet of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, lower fat dairy and less sugary and salty foods. The ADA offers a complete nutrition and recipe guide.
According to the ADA, exercise is equally important and even lowers the risk for prediabetes, where glucose levels are above normal but not as high as type 2 diabetes.
Exercise and nutrition habits can often control type 2, and obesity can cause it. If the condition worsens, insulin or medication may be required.
Regular exercise may even reduce the amount of medicine or insulin required by children with type 1, but it’s important to carefully monitor glucose levels around exercise.
The ADA advises aerobic activity, strength training, stretching and regular movement during the day to prevent and reduce complications for diabetes.
Changing kids’ habits
Helping your child improve lifestyle habits can be challenging. Parents want to avoid power struggles or further damaging self-esteem—a common issue for children who are obese or who have diabetes.
Rewire Me spoke with Rachel Calendo, pediatric diabetes program manager at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa Arizona, and Julie Simpson, MS, RD—the program’s dietician—about strategies to help kids improve nutrition and exercise habits.
Simpson likes the “one bite rule” for each time a food is presented, where kids don’t get extra of another food beyond their regular portions. Simpson finds this rule helps develop tastes for different textures and flavors. She also encourages parents to allow kids to pick which vegetable to cook that night.
Calendo suggests parents take kids shopping to pick out new vegetables to try. “Make healthy snacks easily available for kids,” adds Simpson. “Have bell peppers and hummus chopped and ready, without you having to cut it.”
With children still growing, Calendo cautions against studies or diets meant for adults. Instead, focus on portion sizes of all food groups, even if kids need to lose weight.
Calendo also encourages parents to pay attention to their language. “Physical activity sounds like more fun than exercise,” she says. “Kids also tend to be more successful with a ‘show up sport’ where other kids are present. Who wants to exercise alone?” Calendo asks.
Simpson adds, “Let the child pick the activity or sport, rather than the parent—something more fun than simply walking on the treadmill—so they don’t even realize they are running or jumping around.” 60 minutes of activity, seven days per week is their recommendation.
For the less athletic, “Encourage them to walk the dog.” Simpson says, “Say, ‘Hey, let’s get chalk and play hopscotch.’ Or go on a walk together as a family, so you’re bonding outdoors.”
Pairing exercise with socialization is an important component of instilling the love of exercise.
“When the entire family is involved, children are much less likely to feel singled out or develop self-esteem problems,” says Dr Jared Heathman of Houston, Texas.
Heathman’s client tried to increase the child’s exercise by encouraging more outdoor activities and enrolling the child in soccer. The child enjoyed soccer; the family attended weekly practice and games. But no changes were implemented at home, and the child’s weight didn’t change.
When the family began daily soccer practice together, neighbors joined the activity. The whole family lost weight. “The entire family benefited from positive change, and the child grew to enjoy exercise more as it was fun, not a punishment for a weight problem,” explains Heathman.
Childhood diabetes is a growing epidemic with serious risks, but it’s important to focus on the aspects we can help children control. Learning to maintain a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise will serve kids their whole lives. And by practicing these habits alongside them, we’ll benefit our entire society.