More children and teens are developing type 2 diabetes than ever before. Learn how simple changes to your family's food and exercise habits can help prevent this disease.
Diabetes and prediabetes affect the health of many individuals and families around the world. Whether you’re concerned about maintaining a healthy lifestyle or diabetes has already touched you or your family, you can put a fresh spin on your eating and exercise habits.
People with diabetes can manage the disease, lower their risk of complications, and live well. However—as with many health conditions—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
Identify the obstacles
What stops you and your family from living healthy? “In today’s busy world, parents are often commuting and working long hours,” says certified diabetes educator Karen Graham. “It’s difficult to balance work responsibilities with a healthy family life.”
Technology is often another barrier. “Smartphones, computers, and tablets can eat up the time parents spend with their children,” she says. Graham encourages parents to set ground rules and stick to them. Consistency and positive role modelling—such as limiting TV, phone, and computer time for the whole family—will help kids see and appreciate other activities.
“Spend time with your children,” says Graham. “Take an interest in their homework and lives. Encourage them. Listen to them, have fun with them, and include them in your discussions, family activities, and meal preparation.”
Take three small steps in the right direction
Jannine Murray is a health and fitness specialist who believes time and energy are the biggest barriers to eating healthy and exercising regularly. Many families see planning ahead, grocery shopping, making meals, and exercising as daunting tasks that require too much energy.
“I encourage my clients to figure out how much time and effort it takes to eat clean and exercise,” says Murray. “Then, schedule it. Put meal preparation and exercise in the family organizer and calendar. Deliberately create time and space for these self-care routines.”
The first step is gaining clarity about what prevents you from being healthy. The second step is creating space in your family calendar. The third step is not allowing excuses or distractions to get in the way.
“The process of getting clear, creating space, and not allowing distractions will create energy and momentum,” says Murray. “This will increase self-confidence, which will in turn make it easier to keep your commitments and sustain the enthusiasm you need to continue.”
This upward trajectory is empowering, especially as you build momentum. You’ll go beyond “just” preventing diabetes to noticing and delighting in the physical and emotional benefits of healthy living.
Change your family’s palate
Your taste buds may prefer Swiss chocolate over Swiss chard right now, but change is coming.
“People who eat clean, low-sugar diets have a different awareness to tastes,” says Murray. “They actually crave healthier foods, in comparison with people who consistently eat unhealthy, high fat, high sugar foods.”
Families can re-train their palates and reduce sugar cravings by eating soured and fermented foods such as kefir (fermented milk), raw unpasteurized sauerkraut, and fermented vegetables. Murray says these foods have beneficial yeasts and bacteria that help balance the good bacteria in the gut and reduce your body’s sugar cravings.
Are fermented foods new to your family? Introduce them slowly. Make a smoothie using kefir or serve fermented foods as a side dish with a favourite meal, and encourage your family to be gastronomically adventurous.
Make bags of delicious “frozen foundations”
“I cook base recipes that supplement many meals,” says Graham, author of Canada’s Complete Diabetes Guide (Robert Rose, 2013). “For example, I buy a large container of ground meat and cook it with chopped onions and garlic. I add whatever vegetables are in my fridge—diced celery, carrots, spinach, or peppers. Cook, cool, package, and freeze in individual portions.”
Chickpeas, black beans, fish, or other proteins can also be cooked with veggies and frozen in small portions. Add them to soups, chilies, casseroles, pizzas, or omelettes. Or mix them with cooked whole grain pasta or brown rice for a quick, simple meal.
Combine processed and homemade foods
Instead of avoiding prepackaged foods altogether—or relying on them solely to feed your busy family—find ways to creatively combine prepared and homemade foods. Graham encourages parents not to feel guilty about using packaged foods as part of a meal.
“Rinse the excess salt from canned lentils or kidney beans,” she says. “Add the beans to your stew, chili, or salad.
Follow the 80/20 rule in both food and exercise
If you eat nutritious foods and engage in moderate exercise 80 percent of the time, you can indulge without guilt in your favourite sweet treats and “couch potato” activities 20 percent of the time.
Increasing physical activity is key to reducing the likelihood of developing diabetes. Diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure often go together. In fact, up to three-quarters of people with undiagnosed diabetes have high blood pressure. Exercise reduces stress and blood pressure, increases energy, and leads to stronger muscles and bones.
Implement a family adventure day or a leaderboard
Murray encourages families to plan one family adventure day a week. The only requirements are curiosity and a willingness to explore your natural environment, whether it’s urban or rural.
If your family enjoys friendly competition, consider charting your personal bests. “It’s fun, and it motivates kids to exercise!” says Murray. “Create a leaderboard with all the family members’ names. Every week, chart how many repetitions each individual can do of exercises such as push-ups, squats, lunges, crunches, jumping jacks, squat jumps, or plank holds.”
The first week, each individual performs all the exercises while the other family members cheer. The results are charted. Once everyone documents their baseline fitness results, the family sets monthly goals together. If the goals are achieved by the family as a whole, everyone can enjoy a nonfood reward.
“Leaderboards are great because kids love competing against their parents,” says Murray. “And kids can outperform their parents on certain exercises!”
Take a daily gratitude walk as a family
“Go on a morning or evening walk in your neighborhood and talk about what you’re grateful for,” says Murray. “Not only does this lower stress and boost the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin in your brain, it rewires your nervous system and puts you in a perpetual state of bliss.”
This practice can teach children (and parents) the power of daily gratitude, which has a lifelong impact on positive emotional health, physical development, and the ability to handle problems.
Recent research shows that bonding as a family is about the quality of time spent together, not the quantity. Taking a gratitude walk, creating a leaderboard, or experimenting with healthy new recipes together can set the stage for moments of genuine connection.
Seize those moments. Not only do they enhance emotional and physical health, but they also help protect you and your family from most diseases—including diabetes.
- Diabetes is a chronic condition that stems from the body’s inability to sufficiently produce and/or properly use insulin, which you need to convert sugar into energy.
- Diabetes can lead to serious health complications and even early death.
- Obese children have a 25 to 50 percent increased risk of becoming obese adults.
- Type 2 diabetes is associated with obesity.
What is prediabetes?
Prediabetes often starts five to 10 years before symptoms show, says certified diabetes educator Karen Graham. In this early stage you have a better chance of reversing diabetes and preventing complications. How? By getting tested regularly, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying physically active.
Quick tips for healthy eating
- Try these ideas from dietitian Lindsay Jang.
- Make grocery lists, go shopping, and cook as a family.
- Experiment with one new healthy recipe a week.
- Throw handfuls of washed spinach, kale, or arugula into smoothies, sauces, soups, wraps, and sandwiches, or on pizzas.
- Pre-cook large quantities of oatmeal, quinoa, or brown rice; cool and refrigerate or freeze; heat quickly for meals.
- Make healthy grab-and-go snacks: fruit, veggies, nuts, whole grain crackers, single portions of cheese, yogurt, or cottage cheese.
Supplements for busy families
- Probiotics and healthy intestinal bacteria have been shown to produce biochemicals and hormones that may help prevent diabetes from developing.
- Early studies suggest grape skin extract inhibits high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and may help manage diabetes.
- New research shows a possible link between low vitamin D levels and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
- Traditional Chinese herbal medicines hold promise for slowing the progression from prediabetes to a diabetes diagnosis.