What To Feed A Diabetic Child

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If you find yourself asking the question, “What to feed a diabetic child?” And wondering how to prepare their meals and snacks in a way that is both nutritious and consistent with your child’s regular diet, then this is the article for you. Please note that the following information is not intended to replace the advice of your physician, but rather to help provide some general guidelines regarding nutrient-rich foods and appropriate nutritional alternatives for children with diabetes. Most parents know that a healthy diet is important for their children. But what happens when one of the children has diabetes? While sugar, pasta and a lot other foods get banned from their diets, the parents have more challenges to face. Sure they will deprive themselves of desserts and other foods they loved as a child but can they go ahead and offer their diabetic child any foods they may want? Can the diabetic child eat anything at all?

What To Feed A Diabetic Child

Little boy eating plate of veggies
When you have a child with type 1 diabetes, meal planning is important. Everything your child eats can affect their blood sugar. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you come up with the best plan for your child, but there’s information all parents of kids with this condition should know.

Good Nutrition

Like all children, kids with type 1 diabetes need nutrient-rich foods that help them grow and keep them at a healthy weight. Over the course of a day, your child should get about 10%-20% of their calories from protein, 25%-30% calories from healthy fats, and about 50%-60% from carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates

Carbs are found in most foods — not just bread and potatoes. They supply the energy that the body and brain need to work their best. Steer your child toward complex carbs such as vegetables and whole grains.  They have vitamins and minerals that will keep them healthy, and fiber, which helps control blood sugar levels.

Try to stay away from simple carbs, like white bread and pasta and other processed grains, candy and frosting. They can raise blood sugar quickly.The amount of carbs your child needs depends on their weight, age, size, exercise level, and any medicines they’re taking. Your doctor or dietitian can help you figure out the number of grams or serving sizes your child should have each day.

Carb Counting

Many families keep their child’s blood sugar levels steady by counting the number of carbohydrates eaten at every meal or snack, then adjusting insulin doses for it.

On packaged foods, the number of total carbs per serving is listed on the label. You can subtract the grams of dietary fiber since this isn’t digested. Then multiply the total by how many servings of that food your child eats. If you’re cooking at home or eating out, you can look up carb counts and portion sizes of foods online.

Constant Carbohydrate Plan

Another option is to have your child eat a set amount of carbohydrates at every meal and snack. They’ll need to eat at the same times every day, and also take insulin at set times. You don’t have to eat the same foods everyday. You just need to stick to the total carbs set for each meal and snack.  Keeping to a schedule works well for many kids.

Exchange Meal Plan

With an “exchange plan,” your child’s menu will include the amount they can eat from six different food groups: starch, fruit, milk, fat, vegetable, and meat. One food can be exchanged for another with the same amount of calories, protein, carbs, and fats. In children with type 1, dietitians often will focus on carb exchanges since this affects blood sugars the most. You can find exchange lists online.

Foods To Avoid

There are no specific foods that are off-limits to your child, but there are things to consider when meal planning and grocery shopping.

People with diabetes have a higher risk of developing heart disease. Because of that, it’s good to steer your child away from fatty foods that contain cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat.Avoid foods high in salt. Eating too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure.

Limit sugary foods like candy, cookies, frosting, or soda that raise blood sugar quickly. They’re best given at a meal and with insulin. You’ll adjust insulin based on carb counting. Your child doesn’t have to miss out on treats for special occasions like birthdays or Halloween. You’ll just have to account for those carbs over the course of the day.

Snacks To Keep On Hand

“Free” snacks like cucumbers and celery or sugar-free gelatin contain very few carbs, so they won’t have much effect on your child’s blood sugar. You can also have “controlled-carb snacks” handy for between meals. Some good kid-friendly choices: low-fat string cheese, a hard-boiled egg, or a small serving of nuts with a sugar-free drink.

Highs and Lows

If your child eats more than expected or at a different time than you’ve planned, they may get high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia. If this happens, you may need to make some adjustments. Talk to your diabetes team about adjusting their meal plan or their doses of insulin or other medication.

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can cause serious problems that need treatment right away. Your child’s glucose levels can drop if they skip a meal or snack or doesn’t eat as many carbs as expected. It can also happen if they take their insulin at the wrong time or exercises more than usual without eating extra snacks or adjusting their insulin. If your child’s levels are low, give them a sugary food. Regular soda, orange juice, or even cake frosting raise glucose levels quickly.

How Do Foods Affect Blood Sugar?

Some foods affect your child’s blood sugar directly, causing it to rise. Other foods can affect levels indirectly. By understanding how foods are affecting your child’s blood sugar, you can help them keep it in a healthy range.

Foods that directly impact blood sugar because they contain carbohydrates include:

  • Fruits
  • Grains like bread, rice and pasta
  • Some dairy products like milk or yogurt
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn
  • Sugary foods like candy or desserts

When you eat these foods, your digestive system breaks them down into sugar that enters your bloodstream. Insulin helps use up the sugar and lower your blood sugar levels again.

Healthy proteins like lean meats and eggs, and fats like butter and olive oil, only minimally affect blood sugar. However, these foods can slow down digestion which has an indirect effect. That means your child’s body absorbs sugar more slowly, which can change the amount and timing of insulin a child with diabetes might need.

Be Aware Of Sugar-Free And Fat-Free Foods

Many people mistakenly think that sugar-free foods don’t contain carbohydrates. However, these foods are often still high in carbohydrates, even if they aren’t sugars. They may also contain sugar alcohols, which still raise blood sugar.

Fat-free foods can also be higher in carbohydrates. To make up for the lack of fat, many of these foods use a high amount of sugar to create flavor. If you aren’t sure what is in your child’s food, always check the nutrition label for the number of carbohydrates.

What Are The Diet Recommendations For Type 1 Diabetes?

The American Diabetes Association recommends the same healthy diet for children who have type 1 diabetes as those who don’t. Eating adequate calories for your child to grow and develop appropriately is the primary goal of adequate nutrition. While your child doesn’t have to avoid any particular foods, you’ll want to keep these tips in mind:

  • Avoid sugary drinks. Instead, choose water. There are many sparkling waters available that have minimal carbohydrates or sugar substitutes. Also, try infusing your water with fresh fruits and herbs to help give flavor, but not add extra calories or sugar. Crystal Light, sugar-free lemonades or unsweetened teas are options, but should not be your primary hydration source.
  • Don’t let your child skip meals as this can cause them to overeat at the next meal.
  • Even if your child is trying to lose weight, they should never skip a meal. They should only reduce portion sizes.
  • Increase daily fiber to help overall blood sugar control as well as many other health benefits
  • Choose healthy carbohydrates at every meal and try to pair them with a fat and protein. Healthy carbohydrate examples are whole wheat pasta, brown rice, whole wheat bread, oatmeal and fruit.

What Are Healthy Foods For a Child With Type 1 Diabetes?

There are many healthy foods your child can eat to help manage blood sugar levels. Eating a wide variety of foods is important. These healthy foods and snacks include:

  • Vegetables prepared in many ways, including steamed, roasted, in a salad or dipped in dressing or hummus
  • Fresh fruits with peanut/other nut butter
  • Dairy products such as cheese or Greek yogurt
  • Eggs prepared any way your child prefers
  • Lean meats including poultry and fish
  • Beans, nuts and seeds
  • Whole wheat crackers with low-fat cheese
  • High fiber cereal

Work with your child to try new foods and find the foods they love. By involving children in their meal planning decisions, you can help them feel good about their healthy habits.

Symptoms Of Type 2 Diabetes In Children

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes aren’t always easy to spot. In most cases, the disease develops gradually, making the symptoms hard to detect. Many people don’t feel any symptoms. In other cases, children may not show any.

If you believe your child has diabetes, keep an eye out for these six symptoms:

1. Excessive Fatigue

If your child seems extraordinarily tired or sleepy, changes in blood sugar may be affecting their energy levels.

2. Frequent Urination

Excessive sugar levels in the bloodstream can lead to excessive sugar going into the urine, which is followed by water. This may leave your child running to the bathroom for frequent restroom breaks.

3. Excessive Thirst

Children who have excessive thirst may have high blood sugar levels.

4. Increased Hunger

Children with diabetes don’t have enough insulin to provide fuel for their body’s cells. Food becomes the next best source of energy, so children may experience hunger more frequently. This condition is known as polyphagia or hyperphagia.

5. Slow-Healing Sores

Sores or infections that are resistant to healing or slow to resolve may be a sign of type 2 diabetes.

6. Darkened Skin

Insulin resistance can cause skin to darken, most commonly in the armpits and neck. If your child has type 2 diabetes, you may notice areas of darkened skin. This condition is called acanthosis nigricans.

Causes Of Type 2 Diabetes In Children

Being overweight is closely tied to the development of type 2 diabetes. Overweight children have an increased likelihood of insulin resistance. As the body struggles to regulate insulin, high blood sugar leads to a number of potentially serious health problems.

Obesity in American children and adolescents has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source.

Genetics may also play a role. For instance, the risk of type 2 diabetes increases if one parent or both parents have the condition.

Diagnosis

Type 2 diabetes in children requires testing by a pediatrician. If your child’s doctor suspects type 2 diabetes, they’ll likely perform a urine glucose test, a fasting blood glucose test, a glucose tolerance test, or an A1C test.

Risk factors

Diabetes in children is most common in those aged 10 to 19 years.

A child may have an increased risk for type 2 diabetes if:

  • they have a sibling or other close relative with type 2 diabetes
  • they show symptoms of insulin resistance, including dark patches of skin usually found around the neck or underneath the armpits
  • they’re overweight or obese

Kids with a body mass index (BMI) above the 85th percentile were around four times as likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to one 2017 study.

Current guidelines recommend that testing for diabetes be considered for any child who’s overweight or obese and has at least one additional risk factor as listed above.

Treatment

Treatment for children with type 2 diabetes is similar to treatment for adults. The treatment plan will vary according to the growth needs and specific concerns of your child. Children should be supervised at all times when taking medications.

However, before starting any medications, diet and lifestyle changes should be used to attempt controlling blood sugar levels. If diet and exercise don’t work, your child’s endocrinologist will determine which medication is best for your child.

Depending on your child’s symptoms and medication needs, teachers, coaches, and other people who supervise your child may need to know about your child’s treatment for type 2 diabetes. Talk with your child’s doctor about a plan for the times when they’re in school or otherwise away from you.

Blood Glucose Monitoring

Daily blood sugar monitoring at home will likely be important to follow your child’s blood sugar levels and watch their response to treatment. A blood glucose meter will help you check this.

Shop online for an home use blood glucose meter.

Diet And Exercise

Your child’s doctor will also give you and your child dietary and exercise recommendations to keep your child healthy. You’ll need to pay careful attention to the amount of carbohydrates that your child takes in during the day.

Participating in approved, supervised forms of physical exercise every day will help your child stay within a healthy weight range and lessen the negative effects of type 2 diabetes.

Potential Complications

Children with type 2 diabetes are at a greater risk for serious health problems as they grow older. Vascular issues, such as heart disease, are a common complication for children with type 2 diabetes.

Other complications, such as eye problems and nerve damage, may occur and progress faster in children with type 2 diabetes than in those with type 1 diabetes.

Weight control difficulties, high blood pressure, and hypoglycemia are also found in children with the diagnosis. Weakened eyesight and poor kidney function have also been found to occur over a lifetime of having type 2 diabetes.

How To Prevent Type 2 Diabetes In Children

You can help children avoid diabetes by encouraging them to take the following steps:

  • Practice healthy habits. Children who eat well-balanced meals and limit their intake of sugar and refined carbs are less likely to become overweight and develop diabetes.
  • Get moving. Regular exercise is important for preventing diabetes. Organized sports or neighborhood pick-up games are great ways to get kids moving and active. Limit screen time and encourage outside play instead.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Healthy diet and exercise habits can help children maintain a healthy weight.

It’s also important to set a good example for children. Be active with your child and encourage good habits by demonstrating them yourself.

Outlook

Since diabetes is sometimes harder to diagnose and treat in children, the outcomes for children with type 2 diabetes aren’t easy to predict.

Type 2 diabetes in young people is a relatively new issue in medicine. Research into its causes, outcomes, and treatment strategies is still ongoing. Future studies are needed to analyze the long-term consequences of having type 2 diabetes from youth.

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