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The Rise of Type 2 Diabetes in Australian Children

When talking about type 2 diabetes most people think of middle aged and older adults. However, an increasing number of children are being diagnosed with the condition. Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes is largely preventable. Why then are rates in children on the rise? How can parents', and childcare centres minimise the risk? Let's take a look...

What is type 2 diabetes?

First, let’s take a step back and look at what type 2 diabetes is.

Type 2 diabetes is a condition that occurs when your blood glucose level, also called blood sugar level, is chronically high. When we eat foods that contain carbohydrates, those carbohydrates break down in our digestive tract into a sugar molecule called glucose. Glucose enters the blood stream, which triggers our pancreas to release the hormone insulin. The pancreas is an organ located near our stomachs that has many important functions including hormone production and regulation. Insulin is released in response to glucose entering the blood stream in order to help in transporting glucose into our blood cells. From here the blood cells can carry glucose all around our body to provide us with the energy we need to do all the things we need and want to do.

However, in the case of type 2 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin and some of what is produced is ineffective. This means not all the glucose can be transported into our blood cells and instead remains free in the blood. This is high blood glucose or sugar levels.

High blood sugar levels can cause many uncomfortable symptoms including:

  • Increased thirst

  • Dry mouth

  • Frequent urination

  • Fatigue

  • Blurred vision

Type 2 Diabetes in Australian Children

How do children develop type 2 diabetes?

So now that we understand what the condition is, how do children develop type 2 diabetes and why are younger and younger children being diagnosed?

There are a number of risk factors that increase the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. Genetics plays a big role in the condition, having a family history of diabetes significantly increases the risk of developing the condition.

The risk is further increased when a child's mother has type 2 diabetes, as well as the mother developing gestational diabetes during pregnancy, even if she has not since been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Other risk factors for type 2 diabetes include lifestyle factors such as:

  • Being overweight/obese

  • Low activity levels and sedentary lifestyles

  • Diet high in discretionary foods and sugar sweetened beverages

Ethnicity can also increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Children of an Aborniginal and Torres Strait Islander, Indian, or Chinese backgrounds are at an increased risk of the condition.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), around 400 cases of type 2 diabetes are diagnosed each year in those aged 10 to 24 years. We are now even starting to see children as young as 4 being diagnosed.

There are many factors that are contributing to the rise in young onset type 2 diabetes. These factors include:

  • Increasing rates of childhood obesity. According to the AIHW 1 in 4 (25%) Australian children and adolescents aged 2–17 are overweight or obese, and 1 in 12 (8.2%) are obese.

  • A more sedentary lifestyle. Children are spending more time than ever seated, especially in front of screens such as televisions, computers, phones, and iPads.

  • Highly processed diets. The AIHW has found that intake of discretionary foods and sugar sweetened beverages far exceeds the recommended intake for boys and girls across almost all age ranges.

  • Other factors such as increasing rates of gestational diabetes are also believed to be related to increased childhood type 2 diabetes.

It is important to note that type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the body's own immune system is activated to destroy cells in the pancreas which produce insulin. Whilst the two conditions have many similarities, there are also fundamental differences between the two including differences in risk factors and management strategies.

How can parents', caregivers, and childcare centres minimise the risk of type 2 diabetes in children?

It’s important to remember that a family history of type 2 diabetes is not a guarantee that someone will develop the condition, and no family history doesn’t mean they won't. Therefore, preventative measures to help reduce the risk of developing diabetes are important for all children.

There are some simple things parents, caregivers, and childcare facilities can do to help minimise the risk of children developing type 2 diabetes now and also later in life. These things include:

  • Finding fun ways for children to be active and move throughout the day. When we move our muscles during exercise, we are better able to use glucose for energy which helps to maintain a healthy blood glucose level. Remember exercise and movement, especially for children, should be a fun and positive experience so find games and activities that get children excited to move.

  • Limit intake of sugary drinks such as soft drinks, cordials, and fruit juices.

  • Limit intake of discretionary foods such as chips, chocolate, lollies, ice cream, biscuits, cake, pastry foods including sausage rolls, pies, pasties, and croissants, and fast-food options like pizza, and hot chips.

  • For childcare centres, having your menu approved by a Dietitian will help to ensure your food options are not high in added sugars and can provide you with ideas for including a variety of healthy food options kids will enjoy.

  • For expecting mothers, working with a Dietitian during pregnancy to manage your blood sugar levels can help reduce the risk of your child struggling with high blood sugars.

Other factors to keep in mind

There are a few other helpful things to keep in mind, especially if you are worried about a child’s risk of type 2 diabetes. There are many different health care professionals who you can reach out to for support including:

  • Dietitians for managing diet and general lifestyle factors both for preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.

  • Your GP/Paediatrician will be able to provide you with support and advise to suit your personal situation.

  • An endocrinologist can provide you with information and advice about insulin levels.

  • Physiotherapists and exercise physiologists can provide you with support and ideas on ways to get children moving and can offer suggestions on fun activities that move the body in ways the support the management of blood sugar levels.

Type 2 diabetes in children is on the rise.

Preventing and managing the condition in children can feel complicated and overwhelming. At OSCAR Care Group, our Dietitians are available to work one on one with families and work within childcare centres to offer personalised advice and help take some of the stress out of keeping children healthy.


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