Type 2 diabetes in children

We asked our expert dietitian to explain what diabetes type 2 in children really means, why it is on the rise and what we can do to keep children healthy. 

Boy eating a spoonful of sugar

What is type 2 diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease traditionally seen in adults. In essence, it occurs when the amount of sugar (glucose) in the body is too high and it can’t be utilised properly. This happens because the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin to breakdown the glucose, or the insulin that is produced isn’t efficient enough to do its job.  

Why is it on the rise in children? 

This is fuelled largely by lifestyle and the obesity epidemic. In Europe, the UK has the highest reported prevalence of childhood type 2 diabetes. The number of cases continues to rise, particularly among girls and South‐Asian children. Female gender, family history and obesity were also found to be strongly associated with the condition. Recent figures from Diabetes UK suggest that almost 7,000 children in the UK have type 2 diabetes. Approximately 40% of children who have type 2 diabetes have no signs or symptoms and are diagnosed during routine physical exams. The National Paediatric Diabetes Audit 2015–2016 reported that type 2 diabetes accounted for 2.2% of the total.

Why are more children being diagnosed with it?

We know the increase is largely due to the rising obesity crisis. To date, figures show that 22,000 children are classified as severely obese, significantly increasing their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. We know this drastically increases their chance of developing serious illnesses in the future, such as heart and vascular problems, as they will have diabetes for several more decades.

What’s changed in the way children eat and exercise?

The reasons are complex and multifactorial and include eating habits, exercise and socio-economic backgrounds. We do know that children who regularly eat junk food are more likely to develop unhealthy eating habits. A reduction in physical activity can also lead to weight gain if children or parents do not modify dietary intake. Increased television or computer time may also lead to reduced activity and should also be considered. Public Health England suggest there is a link to childhood obesity prevalence and deprivation, with children from the most deprived areas having almost double the risk of developing obesity. There are however conflicting reports about this.

Is type 2 diabetes more dangerous for children than adults?

Yes, experts believe that type 2 diabetes in children and young adults is a more aggressive form of the condition when compared with adults. It is a severe, progressive form of type 2 diabetes and is associated with greater insulin resistance and a rapid deterioration when compared to adults. If your child has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the best thing you can do is ensure they eat a healthy diet with regular meals, plenty of vegetables and fruit and whole grains, and get them to be as active as possible. You will also need to be careful about the amount of carbohydrates they consume. If they have been advised to measure their blood glucose levels, writing them down initially can be helpful to see trends.

What can you do to help prevent type 2 diabetes?

Lifestyle changes such as activity and diet are key to help prevent type 2 diabetes. This isn’t easy and children and families need the right support. Encouraging children to keep active and play sport in school and at the weekend is essential. Establishing this behaviour when they’re young is integral to them becoming active adults. Promoting healthy eating from a young age, educating families and children on the concepts of a healthy diet and promoting tasty, healthy, affordable meals is essential. There also needs to be commitment to change on a wider scale looking at banning advertisement on high fat and sugar foods after 9pm, restricting supermarkets promoting unhealthy foods and snacks. Compulsory calorie labelling on menus, foods and snacks in coffee shops and cafes would also be helpful.  

Read more on children and health

This article was last reviewed on 29 January 2019. 

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

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