Diabetes is an umbrella term used for various conditions related to high blood sugar or hyperglycemia. The exact cause of diabetes is still unknown, but most cases are related to the body’s inability to secrete enough insulin (the hormone that metabolizes sugar), or the inability to use secreted insulin optimally. The former is called Type 1 diabetes; the latter is known as Type 2 diabetes. People with diabetes can suffer from high blood sugar, unless they pay careful attention to their daily sugar intake. High blood sugar (also called high glycemic index or high GI) can lead to many health complications, including heart and liver disease. Complications associated with diabetes include blindness, kidney problems (including hepatic failure), and leg amputation. Diabetes is also linked to an increased risk for heart problems including hypertension, stroke and heart attack.
Alarmingly, the age onset of diabetes is getting younger and younger, with most cases of childhood diabetes of the Type 1 variety. Even more alarming: most children with Type 1 diabetes have no family history of the disease! While official findings have yet to be released, current research suggests diet and lifestyle as the culprits of this increase.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the number of children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes is increasing as well. This finding is significant, as Type 2 diabetes is typically found only among men and women 40 years old and above. The CDC attributes this increase to what it calls an “epidemic of obesity,” as well as the low level of physical activity among young people. Exposure to diabetes in the womb also increases children’s risk of developing diabetes.
Know the Signs
Parents can be on the lookout for symptoms of diabetes in their children. Increased thirst, increased urination, constant fatigue, and unexplained weight loss are often signals of high blood sugar. Stomach pains and headaches may also be indicators. If you spot these symptoms in your child, arrange a visit to your child’s doctor.
How Can Parent Help Prevent and Treat Diabetes in Their Kids?
Kids (and adults too!) gravitate towards sweet food. Cakes, candies, soft drinks, and all sorts of preserves are too tempting to resist. The same can be said about meals made from starch. Have you ever known a child who says “no” to a bowl of spaghetti, a slice of bread or a chocolate sprinkled donut? Delicious and convenient as these meals may be, parents have a responsibility to try to control their children’s sugar and starch intake – not only because these foods often have very little nutrient value, but because they put the children at risk for diabetes.
For most people, sugar refers only to the sweet crystals from the sugar cane plant, the one we add to our coffee and tea. Thus, when asked to limit sugar intake, they only avoid these sweeteners. But the fact is, our body transforms almost all of the food we eat into sugar. Parents should ideally be aware of what foods contain natural sugars. For instance, foods rich in carbohydrates and starch are rich in a type of sugar called glucose. Thus, people with diabetes, whether it’s Diabetes Type 1 or Type 2, should limit their intake of breads, pastries, pastas, rice and starchy vegetables like potatoes. Heavily processed foods, such as those that underwent various treatments to be better preserved, can release these sugars too quickly into the bloodstream and so must be carefully avoided.
Contrary to popular belief, people with diabetes are not required to abstain totally from sugar. After all, our body gets energy from carbohydrates. The trick is to eat only enough to maintain normal blood glucose levels. If one is taking insulin injections, then it’s important to match one’s carbohydrate intake with insulin dose. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) must also be avoided. A doctor and/or dietitian can help provide information and diets to maintain optimum health.
Offer Lots of Fiber and Water
Offer your child the kinds of food that balance blood sugars. People with diabetes are encouraged to include in their diet rich sources of fiber. These foods include whole grain and whole grain products, fruits and vegetables. These natural products are less likely to impact the body’s glycemic level. Also, they provide vitamins and minerals integral to overall health.
Liquids are also important in helping manage our blood sugar. Aside from the recommended 8 glasses of water a day, people with diabetes are advised to have more, especially if they just ate sugar. Drinking lots of fluids can help flush down the sugar in one’s system.
Offer Alternative Sweeteners
Having diabetes need not necessarily mean that a child has to totally avoid sweet food and food products like cakes and soda. Today, there are many artificial sweeteners that can provide flavor to many meals, and thus create sugar-free options. Many of these sweeteners are approved by the Food and Drug Authority. Note though: the label “no sugar added” is different from “sugar-free.” If there are natural sugars in a product (like orange juice which naturally contains sugar from the orange fruit), “no sugar added” simply means that there’s no additional sugar that what’s naturally found in the product. To be safe, always read the nutritional information in product packages. Your child dietitian can recommend a range of sugar substitutes, some of which you can find in your local supermarket and some of which you’ll find in your neighborhood health food store.
The good news for your youngster is that there are no recommended restrictions on protein-rich foods (chicken, turkey, meat, fish) for diabetics, no more than the restrictions imposed on people without diabetes. The usual dietary allowance of protein, around 20% of the person’s total source of energy, is recommended for diabetics. Make sure though that fat intake is limited to what is called good cholesterol as hypertension and obesity are additional health risks for people with diabetes.
Helping Your Child with Diabetes
While parents can understand the need for nutritional control in managing diabetes, many children cannot! They want to eat what they want to eat and they want to eat what their friends are eating. Parents can help reduce resistance to dietary management by showing understanding and empathy. “I know it’s hard and frustrating. It seems so unfair.” By acknowledging the child’s feelings out loud, parents can help the child release those feelings and move on. Parents need to be aware that because children lack maturity, they will often be tempted to “cheat” on their dietary restrictions. Because teens perceive themselves as invincible, they will do the same. Parents need lots of patience! Realize that this is all a normal part of life for diabetic youngsters. Eventually they will come to terms with their health condition and learn to be responsible for themselves. Meanwhile, parents can try to guide their children without resorting to heavy duty criticism, supervision or scare tactics. If necessary, have your pediatrician or nutritionist speak to your child directly. Sometimes the authority of a medical health professional is more powerful than the coaxing of a parent.
An Incurable and Progressive Disease
It’s important for parents to understand that diabetes is an incurable disease. Worse, left unmanaged, diabetes can produce serious – even fatal—complications.
No treatment has been found to cure or eliminate diabetes. Once your child develops this disease, he or she has it for life. While there are medications that can help control blood sugar, all these drugs can do is to help manage the disease. Constant monitoring of blood sugar, as well as the right diet and lifestyle, are critical to ensure that the condition do not turn for the worse.