Skip to main content
UC Davis Medical Center

UC Davis Medical Center

Lifestyle diseases can take root in childhood

Poor nutrition and exercise habits can harm kids and stay with them for life

circle of smiling kids
Ensure that kids get a full 60 minutes of activity each day, in any kind of time blocks. To help, consider limiting total “screen time” to less than two hours a day for non-homework activities.

Keeping your kids healthy is no easy task when just about everything that makes modern life easier also encourages poor eating habits and discourages physical activity, says pediatric endocrinologist Dennis Styne, head of the UC Davis Childhood Obesity Clinic.

For instance, children are increasingly weaned on inexpensive convenience foods that are heavily processed and high in calories. They’re often used to being driven places and so get less exercise walking and biking. And neighborhood parks or other traditional centers of fun physical activity can be unsafe, or take a back seat to video games and DVDs.

"I once thought you couldn't stop a toddler from being active – I was wrong," says Styne who has seen lifestyle factors affecting children younger than 3 years old. "We're now regularly diagnosing children with diseases we used to see only in adults."

Dennis Styne is a pediatric endocrinologist and head of the UC Davis Childhood Obesity Clinic.

For example, diabetes in childhood was always assumed to be type 1 or “juvenile-onset diabetes,” which cannot be prevented. However, preventable type 2 or “adult onset” diabetes is already a sizable and growing problem among U.S. children and adolescents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  Carrying excess weight is the big risk factor for this age group. (In some ethnic groups, such as Native Americans, new diabetes diagnoses are more often type 2 than type 1).

The genesis of type 2 is often insulin resistance, a precursor condition to diabetes in which the body produces insulin but does not use it effectively. The body then increases insulin levels, and the excess can cause damaging changes in metabolism. Sugar builds up in the blood and eventually leads to diabetes, an irreversible condition that can cause heart disease, blindness, limb loss and other horrible complications in adults.

It’s important for parents to work to prevent such “lifestyle diseases” in their children now, Styne says. Doing so also fosters healthy long-term habits that will stick for good once kiddo has left the nest and is making his or her own adult choices.

Be a role model

Parents must be models of healthy behavior that they want their children to emulate, Styne says. The habits then become more ingrained in children.

First, Styne says parents must be models of healthy behavior that they want their children to emulate. This means the parents need to “eat their vegetables” and “go outside and play” just like their kids. The habits then become more ingrained in children.

Metabolic poisons

Science has yet to find measures proven effective for protecting children from what Styne calls our modern, toxic environment. For example, he says many children drink a lot of high-fructose corn syrup that acts as a “metabolic poison.”

This substance, similar in composition to table sugar, changes the metabolism of the body and can lead to fatty liver disease in all ages. The damaging condition occurs when too much fat builds up in the cells of the liver. Studies show fructose is more readily turned to fat by the body than glucose, another type of sugar that isn’t as sweet.

Make good nutrition easier

kids playing
Find a safe activity that your child enjoys, such as dancing or karate, and encourage it. Or try walking your child to school, or organize a “walking school bus” where parents take several children to school at once.

When you move to cut back or eliminate availability of soda around the house, also think about regulating juice consumption. Many people don’t realize it, Styne says, but juice can have the same negative effects as pop. “Most juice is now effectively sugar water that has little or no benefit,” Styne said. “But eating whole fruit is good because it’s a complete package. It has fiber and vitamins, and people consume a smaller amount of fructose.”

Keep other high-calorie foods out of the house altogether, and replace them with healthier snacks such as fruits and vegetables that are readily available for the kids. If the adults simply can’t do without a favorite high-calorie junk food, keeping it behind lock and key can prevent overconsumption by a child that doesn’t know better. Breakfast cereals are another commonly abused food that needs careful supervision.

Substituting olive oil or other healthy oils for animal fat is important in kids’ meals as it is in adult meals, Styne says. It’s even better of course to avoid fried preparation altogether.

And whether you have a quarter-acre yeard or a windowsill for a small pot of chives, consider growing a garden so that children and see where vegetables come from – and find extra enjoyment and appreciation in eating them.

Physical activity is as important as homework

Between video games, videos and smartphones, kids can’t be counted on to run ragged during playtime anymore when left to their own devices. They may need rules and tips to start moving in creative and innovative ways.

Styne urges parents to ensure their kids get a full 60 minutes of activity each day, in any kind of time blocks. Find a safe activity that your child enjoys, such as dancing or karate, and encourage it. Or try walking your child to school, or organize a “walking school bus” where parents take several children to school at once.

To help, consider limiting total “screen time” to less than two hours a day for non-homework activities.

When to get checked

Children and adolescents diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are usually obese, have a strong family history for type 2 diabetes, and have signs of insulin resistance such as dark thick skin on the back of the neck or irregular menstruation in teen girls.

In some cases, it may be a good idea to have your child or teen checked for type 2 diabetes risk. Having a sense for higher risks can make the benefits of healthy habits more tangible, and help to motivate your family to make the changes it needs.

Children and adolescents diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are generally over 10, but it can happen even earlier. They are usually obese, have a strong family history for type 2 diabetes, and have signs of insulin resistance such as dark thick skin on the back of the neck or irregular menstruation in teen girls.

Those affected with type 2 diabetes belong to all ethnic groups, but it is more commonly seen in non-white groups. American Indian youths have the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes.

Be aware of some common symptoms of type 2 diabetes, such as increased thirst, frequent or nighttime urination, blurry vision, unusual fatigue and unplanned or spontaneous weight loss. Usually there are some of these symptoms in teens with type 2.

Teen girls with polycystic ovarian syndrome have greater chances of developing type 2 diabetes and other several serious health conditions.