Can Diabetes Be Prevented?
Parents want to protect their kids from everything, which is virtually impossible, of course. But can you prevent your child from getting diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose, the main type of sugar in the blood. Glucose, which comes from the foods we eat, is the major source of energy needed to fuel the body’s functions. To use glucose, the body needs the hormone insulin. But in people with diabetes, the body either can’t make insulin or the insulin doesn’t work in the body like it should.
The two major types of diabetes are:
- Type 1 diabetes, in which the immune system attacks the pancreas and destroys the cells that make insulin
- Type 2 diabetes, in which the pancreas can still make insulin, but the body doesn’t respond to it properly
In both types of diabetes, glucose can’t get into the cells normally. This causes a rise in blood sugar levels, which can make someone sick if not treated.
Can Type 1 Diabetes Be Prevented?
Type 1 diabetes can’t be prevented. Doctors can’t even tell who will get it and who won’t.
No one knows for sure what causes type 1 diabetes, but scientists think it has something to do with genes. But just getting the genes for diabetes isn’t usually enough. In most cases, a child has to be exposed to something else — like a virus — to get type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes isn’t contagious, so kids and teens can’t catch it from another person or pass it along to friends or family members. And eating too much sugar doesn’t cause type 1 diabetes, either.
While type 1 diabetes can’t be prevented, some research suggests that breastfeeding, avoiding early introduction of solid foods, and other factors might play a role in lowering the risk of developing the disease. There’s no reliable way to predict who will get type 1 diabetes, but blood tests can detect early signs of it. These tests aren’t done routinely, however, because doctors don’t have any way to stop a child from developing the disease, even if the tests are positive.
Can Type 2 Diabetes Be Prevented?
Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes can sometimes be prevented. Excessive weight gain, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle are all factors that put a person at risk for type 2 diabetes.
In the past, type 2 diabetes almost exclusively affected adults, usually those who were overweight. Doctors even referred to type 2 diabetes as adult-onset diabetes. But now, more children and teens are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which experts say is related to the rapidly increasing number of overweight kids.
Although kids and teens may be able to prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes by managing their weight and increasing physical activity, other risk factors for type 2 diabetes can’t be changed. Kids with one or more family members with type 2 diabetes have an increased risk of developing the disease. Also, certain ethnic and racial groups tend to be more prone to developing it, including those of Native American, African American, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian/Pacific Island descent.
Taking Steps to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes
These simple strategies can help reduce your kids’ risk for developing type 2 diabetes and other associated health problems:
- Make sure kids eat a healthy diet. Encouraging your kids to eat low-fat, nutrient-rich foods — like whole-grain cereals and breads, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and lean proteins — can help prevent excessive weight gain, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
- Limit sugary foods and beverages. Consuming lots of sugar-filled foods and beverages — like sodas, juices, and iced teas — also can lead to excessive weight gain.
- Encourage increased physical activity. Staying active and decreasing the amount of time spent in sedentary activities — like watching TV or playing video or computer games — can also reduce the risk of weight gain and help prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes. Being active can be as simple as walking the dog or mowing the lawn. Try to do something that gets you and your kids moving every day.
If you think your child may be overweight and, therefore, at increased risk of type 2 diabetes, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. They can help you determine what your child’s weight goals should be and how to reach them.
It’s important for growing kids to get enough calories and nutrients for normal growth and development, while preventing the excessive weight gain that can set the stage for type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013