Chicago doctor: Your role in the diabetes epidemic

When I was in medical school, I rarely saw a child who was obese, much less one with Type 2 diabetes. Today, because of the obesity epidemic, it is the predominant form of diabetes in some ethnic groups, and it is becoming more and more common.

There are many consequences of obesity, but Type 2 diabetes is one of the most serious.

Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes both involve the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen that releases insulin into the blood stream to control blood sugar levels. In Type 2 diabetes, because of excess fat, the body doesn’t respond correctly to insulin and blood sugar rises. The pancreas works harder and produces more insulin to keep blood sugar under control. Over time, the body becomes resistant to insulin and the blood sugar levels remain high. It can take years, but the combination of excess fat (obesity) and genetics cause the insulin produced by the pancreas to be ineffective. That condition is called Type 2 diabetes.

The epidemic of childhood obesity is causing rates of Type 2 diabetes to rise dramatically. High cholesterol, liver disease and high blood pressure often go hand-in-hand with diabetes and can lead to heart disease and stroke at a very young age. Unlike Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 can be prevented with diet and exercise in most people, and since diabetes is potentially very harmful (even deadly), prevention is key.

There are many things families can do to help their child avoid Type 2 diabetes:

  • Encourage your school system to provide nutritious snacks and lunches.
  • As a family, make slow, but permanent changes to your diet, replacing chips and soda and other high calorie/low nutrition foods with healthier snacks and drinks.
  • Don’t use food as a reward. Instead use something your child enjoys such as music, clothing, books or visits to special places.
  • Encourage your entire family to exercise at least an hour every day. Doing this together sets a great example for children.
  • Limit time in front of the TV, computer or video games to no more than two hours per day.
  • Change your eating behaviors: eat more slowly, use smaller plates to make smaller portions appear bigger, and avoid putting extra food on the table during meals since that encourages children to take “seconds.”
  • Use fruit as an after-dinner snack.

Type 2 diabetes is preventable; it is up to us to make sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding, lifestyle changes.

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