Chronic high blood sugar over a long period of time can also cause bleeding in the eye and vision loss, as well as glaucoma and cataracts. It can affect your kidneys, liver and heart, even your brain.
But don’t despair.
“One of the most important things doctors can do is to let their patients know these complications are preventable,” says Dr. Adriana Carrillo, assistant professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Think of a bucket. As a child, you start filling that bucket with a lot of risk factors for getting Type 2 diabetes, explains Dr. Will Charlton, pediatric endocrinologist at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Broward.
Start with genetics. It’s known that people who are American Indian, African American, Hispanics and Asians are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than others.
Weight and age also play a part, as do your activity levels. And having a mother with gestational diabetes can also contribute to your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
“You put all your risk factors in that bucket and when you reach its top and it starts to overflow, you have diabetes,” Charlton says.
So the best way to keep your bucket from overflowing is to eliminate as many risk factors as possible. For example, you can’t change your genetics, but parents, with a little effort, can control what their child eats and how much they exercise.
“After all, there’s nothing special that we recommend for a child with diabetes that we wouldn’t recommend for any child,” Rodriguez says.
Start with diet.
When you go to the supermarket, fill up your cart with food items from around the outside of the store, Rodriguez suggests. You’ll be stocking up on whole foods including fruits, vegetables, wholegrain breads and lean meats and dairy products.
“The less you shop up and down the aisles of the supermarket the better off you will be,” she says. That’s because the center of the store tends to be stocked with processed and packaged foods.
“A lot of those packaged foods are really just packaged problems,” Rodriguez says.
Portion control also is important. Overfeeding is a problem than can start as early as birth.
For the first six or seven months, a baby has the tendency to suck, says Perez-Rodriguez. When a mother sees this she thinks the baby is hungry and feeds him. Then he cries and she gives him more. But he’s crying because his stomach is overextended and uncomfortable, not because he’s hungry.
Once a young child gets used to overeating, it’s a hard habit to break. Doctors also recommend breastfeeding instead of using formulas that contain a lot of sugar.
It was Rodriguez’s pediatrician who told her the best thing she could do as a mother was to not feed her children special food after about age 1. So she feeds her 1-year-old the same food she feeds the rest of the family — just cut smaller and in smaller portions.
“I make one meal and we all eat it,” she says.
Perez-Rodriguez also recommends limiting the amount of soda, milk and juice that you give your children. These beverages contain lots of sugar without much fiber.
“I try to tell parents if their children don’t drink juice, so what? A child who has never had juice in his life is not an unhappy child and he’s not a deprived child. We have to change the perception that the child who doesn’t get juice is making a sacrifice,” Perez-Rodriguez says. He’d rather you give your child an apple than a glass of apple juice.
Another way to cut the risk of developing diabetes is to get your family moving. Limit television time and step away from the computer. Carrillo recommends one hour of television a day and at least an hour of physical activity.
You don’t have to think of this as effort and exercise. Make it fun.
Rodriguez takes her children to the playground. “I make it a family affair. I go with my Munchkins and put my 39-year-old-tush down the slide. It doesn’t fit as well as my 1-year-old’s but I do the best I can,” she says.
After all, being overweight is just as big a diabetes risk factor for parents and siblings as it is for the child whose diabetes has already presented itself.
“Kids are smart and can make good choices. But it’s easier to live better if you have the parents on board, too,” Rodriguez says.