Key steps on how to reduce diabetes risk in children

It's Diabetes Week (10 - 16 June) and Paediatric expert and Consultant Paediatric Endocrinologist Rakesh Amin at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), is urging parents to learn the key steps on how to lower their children’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and even prevent or delay the onset of the disease by making lasting lifestyle changes in the home.

Dr Rakesh Amin has expressed his concern on the significant rise in childhood diabetes around the world and believes there is more parents can do to lower the risk of children developing the disease.

Globally, increasing levels of excess nutrition and physical inactivity among children is causing an increase in type 2 diabetes in childhood and is resulting in a global public health issue leading to serious health outcome. Dr Amin highlights the need for a child’s diet and weight to be tackled using an approach that involves family and cultural habit change.

“It is important that the family works together to achieve a healthy outlook in daily life. A good place to start is ensuring that there is healthy food in the home. Encouraging children to eat slower and ensure they take at least 30 minutes to eat meals to allow nutrition to be absorbed. Visually we eat with our eyes so a quick tip you can do is to put the same amount of food on a smaller plate so it looks like there is more food,” he said.

Frequent exercise can also limit the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “It’s up to parents to set a good example to their children. Quick and easy tips include walking to school, taking stairs rather than lifts or escalators and using shopping baskets instead of trolleys. Every little increment adds up to help burn more calories, and on top of that children should be encouraged to participate in extended periods of activity such as swimming, cycling or playing a sport.”

Making lasting lifestyle changes are also key for children who already have type 2 diabetes. According to Dr Amin, achieving genuine weight loss can sometimes reverse the effects of the disease but if children fail to make these changes, type 2 diabetes medication will only have a limited effect.

The main risk factors for type 2 diabetes are being overweight, having a family history of diabetes, ethnicity and being female. As the only modifiable cause out of this list of risk factors is weight, this is what parents need to address, according to Dr Amin. Obesity and over-nutrition causes the main hormone that controls glucose (insulin) to work less well. The body eventually tries to overcome this by producing more insulin but produces so much that the body cannot cope and eventually it turns into higher blood glucose.

“It is vital that we act now but most parents need further education when it comes to treating diabetes,” Dr Amin explains. “Parents must develop a holistic, lifelong approach to making healthy lifestyle changes for their children to help lower the risk.”

Top tips for lowering your child’s risk of type 2 diabetes:

Get active – as a family: Exercising is important for preventing type 2 diabetes. Kids need about 60 minutes of activity a day so to help achieve this, exercise should be encouraged and integrated in everyday family life. This can be small, incremental changes (e.g. deciding to walk to school rather than taking the car), to bigger changes (e.g. family trips to the swimming pool or going on a family bike ride).

Encourage healthy eating in the home: Ensure there is always healthy food and healthy snacks in the home. Bin sugary and processed foods, and buy more fruit and vegetables. Teach children how to read food labels to help them find healthy foods in the supermarket. 

Limit portion sizes: A quick tip is using a smaller plate so to a child’s eye it looks like there is more food. Also, encourage children to eat slower and ensure they take at least 30 minutes to eat meals to allow nutrition to be absorbed.

Be a good role model: All the family need to be on board with a healthy ‘get fit, get active’ attitude so the child doesn’t feel odd or singled out. This will soon make this healthy attitude a normal, everyday part of family life. If this healthy lifestyle can last, then it will significantly help lower the risk or delay the onset of children developing type 2 diabetes.