Family Life

Prediabetes Among Tweens and Teens

For the average parent, nutritional health is a top priority. It’s part of the reason that the advertising industry spends millions every year. Brightly-colored boxed products gleaming with buzzwords like “gluten-free” or “low sugar” call from the grocery shelves, promising nourishment to growing bodies. And yet, prediabetes is increasingly affecting children and young adults in the United States. 

According to data found by Dr. Daniel Hsia, an Associate Professor and endocrinologist specializing in diabetes at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the results for prediabetes in adolescents are shocking. According to recent data from the CDC, roughly 1 in 5 adolescents ages 12-18 have prediabetes. According to Dr. Hsia, there’s also been an increase in full-blown type 2 diabetes in adolescents. While there’s an increase, the medicine demand hasn’t exactly caught up. 

Dr. Hsia cites that while there are treatment options for diabetic teens and tweens, there are far more for adults with the disease. At present, adults with diabetes have around 60-70+ FDA-approved medications to choose from, whereas teens have 3 medications. There’s Metformin, Liraglutide (which was approved fairly recently, in 2019), and varying types of insulin. With a higher risk of developing the disease and not as many treatment options, parents are doing their best to keep up. 

“As a healthcare professional, I am aware of the risks associated with prediabetes. I read labels like a madwoman, and when it comes to cooking for the kids, I try to stick to things that grow from the ground. But it’s hard–sometimes life gets busy and you find yourself reaching for the cereal box,” says Alex A., a 29-year-old mother of two.

So, how did we get here? There’s quite a bit of research to suggest that the issue seems to be a combination of lifestyle choices and genetics.

Nature: Genes

There are some early warning signs that can hint at the risks, making pre-screenings an important thing to do for parents who have an inkling, or any associated medical conditions that could be linked to diabetes. Screenings can also help catch warning signs early. For instance, children who have a BMI greater than the 85th percentile for their age and sex are at a slightly higher risk than those with lower BMI ratings. 

However, examining family histories is a great place to start. “Those with first or second-degree relatives who have diabetes could be at risk for prediabetes. Anyone who has an associated medical condition or a predisposition to high-blood pressure or sleep apnea should also get pre-screened. If a child was born to a mother with gestational diabetes, they are also at risk for prediabetes,” says Dr. Hsia.

Nurture: Diet
While one’s genes do play a large role in a teen’s ability to become diabetic, there are other contributing factors that parents might have more control over, like our diets. Caroline Gilmore, an outpatient dietitian at the Health and Wellness Center at Baton Rouge General has some insights for us.

“The earlier you start with healthier eating, the better. Choose water as your primary beverage, as we find sugary drinks to be the number one source of sugar in the diet,” says Gilmore. Fear not, there are a few things that parents can do to get ahead of the curve. 

While we know sugar isn’t the end-all cause of all prediabetes, cutting sugar from the diet of teens and tweens can help reduce the risks. In general, excess carbohydrates can lead to weight gain, which impacts insulin and sugar levels, leading to unwanted diagnoses. 

“Staying off the blood sugar rollercoaster is the key to feeling healthy and having energy,” says Gilmore, as she explains the differences in food groups and their contributions to health. Many dietitians, including Gilmore, recommend The Plate Method. 

The Plate Method is portion control with a focus on food groups. It’s quite simple. At Baton Rouge General’s clinic, they primarily recommend that half the plate be made up of non-starchy veggies (around half a cup or so will do). Then, the other half of the plate should be made up of a healthy fat source, a good protein source, and healthy carbs. One easy way to throw in a healthy fat source would be cooking the vegetables in butter or having a side salad with olive oil instead of dressing. 

Predisposition or not, moving toward non-starchy veggies in meals is a great step toward overall health and wellness. These veggies have vitamins and minerals that one cannot get from other sources, they are also often lower in calories and high in fiber. Fiber is a godsend for those looking to balance blood sugar levels. Non-starchy vegetables include greens like broccoli, kale, and spinach. However, even onions and mushrooms can also count. 

When it comes to choosing healthy carbs, there are a few options, such as beans, potatoes, and fruit. For protein sources, as long as it is not breaded or fried, there’s some wiggle room. A grilled chicken breast, hamburger patty, or even eggs will do the trick.

Balancing healthy diets with picky eaters or busy teens can be difficult. The best thing parents can do is build good habits. For those battling the workweek, band practices, and activities galore, it’s easy to grab the Pop-Tarts or Hot Pockets in the morning. One tip that Gilmore provides clients is the idea of meal prepping. Baton Rouge General has a range of healthy meal prep ideas, along with Nutrition 101 classes parents can register for. Even eating out is okay once and a while, so long as parents know what to choose. For instance, Chick-fil-A lovers can still find solace in their chicken nuggets, but should instead order grilled chicken. There are tons of little life-hacks here and there.

In hindsight, all of these factors and diet tips might feel like needles in a haystack when it comes to prevention–but all good things start with small steps. Perhaps, in this case, the age-old phrase “an apple a day” might actually keep the doctor away. ■

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