What Should Children with Diabetes Eat?
The number of children with Type 2 diabetes is on the rise — and increased even more during the pandemic. While Type 1 diabetes, often called juvenile diabetes, is not considered preventable, you can take steps to reduce your child’s risk for Type 2 diabetes. The same steps that reduce your child’s risk for diabetes can also help control your child’s blood sugar if they have been diagnosed with diabetes.
This November, as part of Diabetes Awareness Month, learn how you can help your child control their diabetes using simple, healthy eating.
How Nutrition Affects Type 2 Diabetes
Every time you eat, your body breaks down food into glucose (sugar). Glucose is the main energy source for your body, and it’s important in keeping all your cells working as they should. Your cells also need a special hormone, called insulin, to absorb glucose and use it.
In children with Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas (an organ in the abdomen) doesn’t create insulin well. Without the right amount of insulin, your child’s cells can’t use glucose. That means glucose stays in their blood at high levels. High blood glucose (blood sugar) for long periods of time can damage the kidneys, nerves, eyes and heart.
“I recommend that all children, whether or not they have diabetes, have a healthy balanced meal plan. Avoid sweetened beverages (no one really needs juice), and try to limit prepackaged foods and fast foods as much as possible,” says Robin Nemery, MD, chief of Pediatric Endocrinology at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital.
“Too many children have a predominantly high carb diet – simple sugars and carbohydrates raise blood sugars. In patients with diabetes, it causes a big spike in blood sugar. In people who do not have diabetes or who have insulin resistance, it makes the beta cells work harder: they have to put out more insulin to regulate the blood sugar. Try to balance whole grain, high fiber sources of carbs with lean protein and “good” sources of fat for meals and snacks.”
Speaking of snacks, try to limit snacking. Most snack foods don’t induce satiety (i.e., feeling full) and have little, if any, nutritional value. Frequent snacking leads to excess consumption of empty calories and contributes to weight gain.
How to Choose the Right Foods for Your Child
A dietitian can help you and your child better understand what they should eat. The good news is their diet is a healthy diet for the whole family. By eating this way, you can help everyone in your family enjoy better health.
In general, you want to select foods that help your child’s body make glucose slowly. These foods include:
- Lean meats like chicken, turkey, fish and seafood
- High-fiber foods like whole grain bread, brown rice and whole grain pasta
- Fruits and vegetables
- Healthy fats like olive oil and avocados
You should include plenty of these foods in your daily meals. But there are also foods you’ll want to avoid. These foods don’t have a lot of nutrition and can make blood glucose rise very quickly. Try to limit these foods in your child’s diet:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, juice, smoothies and chocolate milk
- Fried and breaded foods
Other Nutrition Guidelines for Children with Diabetes
Portion sizes have grown considerably over the last few decades. And increased portions also mean more calories, higher blood sugar and increased weight gain.
Whenever you serve your child food, try to stick to the recommended serving size. You can find this information on the nutrition label that’s required to be on products at the grocery store.
We don’t tell our patients that they can never have something special, like a slice of birthday cake on their birthday, but again, sweets should be consumed in moderation for everyone and on occasion. It shouldn’t be an everyday thing or more than once a day. For people with diabetes, fast acting, simple carbs and sugars can make it challenging for them to keep their blood sugars in therapeutic target.
Some foods don’t have nutrition labels — and these are often the healthiest foods. In general, three ounces of meat (about the size of a deck of cards) is a good portion for children. And when it comes to fruits and vegetables, there’s no such thing as too much.
“For people with diabetes, managing blood sugar and achieving their blood sugar goals is a combination of what they eat, their insulin regimen or medications and exercise. Even people who don’t have diabetes don’t always have “normal” blood sugars," says Dr. Nemery. "If people who don’t have diabetes eat certain things, their blood sugar can go about “normal” . They usually don’t know because they aren’t checking their blood sugars all the time. For people with diabetes, we don’t expect them to have normal blood sugars all the time."
"The goal is for them to be in range 70% or more of the time and ideally, they shouldn’t have blood sugars of 250 mg/dl or over more than 5% of the time. Achieving these goals has a lot to do with their diet. Exercise helps the body better utilize insulin and burns more glucose, so exercise also plays an important role in keeping blood sugars in range and improving the body’s insulin sensitivity.”
At Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, our caring endocrinologists and dietitians are ready to work with you to improve your child’s health. Learn more about our pediatric endocrinology services for children with diabetes.
For a deeper dive into diabetes, watch Dr. Nemery's Facebook Live.