Health & Fitness

Medical professionals concerned about high rates of diabetes in children

Annabel Oswald, who was first diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2012 when she was 16.
Annabel Oswald, who was first diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2012 when she was 16.

When 16-year-old Annabel Oswald was first diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2012, she thought it was her fault.

“I thought I was eating too much sugar,” said the MAST Academy at Homestead student. “I didn’t know what Type 1 diabetes was. I was pretty upset.”

Annabel’s diagnosis came after these classic symptoms: urinating excessively, feeling thirsty all the time and losing her taste for sweets. Shockingly, her blood sugar level was 700 mg/dl at the doctor’s office; a normal level is 100.

The Redland teenager was immediately admitted to the hospital. Now on an insulin pump and managing her illness, Annabel first went through depression and saw a psychologist.

Approximately 1.25 million American children and adults have Type 1 diabetes, which means the body does not make enough insulin. In Type 2, which accounts for about 90 to 95 percent of all diabetes cases, the body can’t use insulin properly. People are more at risk of contracting the disease if they are overweight, sedentary, 45 and older and have a family member who has diabetes. Additionally, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans are at higher risk.

Those diagnosed with Type 1 must have daily insulin shots or use an insulin pump for life, while those with Type 2 can try to control their blood sugar levels by making diet and lifestyle changes. If not, they’ll need daily insulin shots.

Healthcare professionals are concerned about an explosion of diabetes and pre-diabetes in children, which is linked to rising obesity levels. Rates of Type 2 diabetes have increased markedly since 1960.

“The incidence of diabetes in children has been increasing for awhile,” notes Cristina Ring, a nurse practitioner at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood. “Yesterday, we got three new kids admitted overnight with the disease. We’ve had some diagnosed at 9 and 10 months.”

When children are admitted to the hospital with diabetes, they are usually admitted for two to three days. They learn how to do a “finger poke” – test their sugar level by pricking their finger, give themselves insulin injections, start a low-sugar, low-carbohydrate meal plan and count carbohydrates.

“We tell them, you have to count how many Goldfish you eat,” says Ring. “We don’t want them to eat a lot of sugar. They still can have rice and potatoes, they can have a slice of birthday cake on their birthdays, but we wouldn’t want them to eat a cereal like Frosted Flakes. You can’t have soda or Kool-Aid.”

Healthcare professionals are also focused on stopping the disease in its early stages—or before it even starts. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, recently conducted a study that found that cutting back sugar to children for just 10 days resulted in marked improvements.

In the study, which 43 children ages 8 to 18 participated in, dietary sugar was reduced from 28 percent to 10 percent and substituted with starch. The team saw across-the-board improvements in the children’s health, from a reduction in blood pressure, fatty acids and cholesterol to improved liver function and glucose levels. What is even more striking is there was no exercise component to the study, and carbohydrates were left in the diet.

Dr. Joshua Tarkoff, a pediatric endocrinologist with Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, dubs the study “amazing.”

“For me what was most remarkable is this is still not a diet I would send kids home with,” said Tarkoff, who was at the California university during the study’s recruitment. “There were still potato chips in there; there were still bagels in there. This was not what we’d call a paleo diet.”

Tarkoff attributes the increase in children’s prediabetes and diabetes cases to the steady rise of fructose in kids’ diets, eliminating gym classes in schools and a family history of obesity.

“It’s rare to have an obese child if the parents are not also obese, and usually the brother and sister too,” said Tarkoff. “Kids aren’t stupid. They’re not going to want a salad when there’s ice cream in the freezer. When I give a prescription for healthy eating, it’s usually for the whole family.”

For patients like Annabel, education is key. Even though she has an insulin pump and her blood sugar is regulated, she almost passed out once during a trip to Bayside with her friends, and had to call 911 and get injected with a sugary substance another time.

She has this message for children newly diagnosed with diabetes: “It gets much easier in time. And we’re close to a cure.”