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Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 3 Nissan, 5761

Mitzi Perdue

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Consumer Reports

Diabetes is an environmental issue -- ARE you a parent or a grandparent? Are there young people in your life that you care about? Then Dr. Richard Kahn, chief medical officer for the American Diabetes Association, has something important for you to know.

There's been an alarming increase in Type 2 diabetes in children.

In the past this kind of diabetes was rarely seen in children 8 to 15 years old, but today some clinics report that the number of cases they' re seeing is increasing by an astonishing 30 percent a year.

The good news is there' s a lot you can do to reduce the risk for the youngsters in your life. The bad news is that our culture doesn't make it easy to make the changes.

We'll get to what you can do to prevent Type 2 diabetes in a moment. But first, why worry about any form of diabetes?

The answer is that diabetes is not only a debilitating disease, it can lead to heart disease, blindness, nerve damage, kidney failure and amputations. It's one of the leading causes of death for children.

Why are children more vulnerable to it today than ever before? The answer, Kahn believes, has to do with the environment in which we live today. Our bodies are in some ways better equipped to handle the scarcity of food in times past than today's abundance.

"When people were hunter-gatherers, starvation was always a possibility," he says. "To survive, our ancestors needed a mechanism to store food so they could get through the lean times."

One of the mechanisms was our ability to store food as fat. When our ancestors were lucky enough to have digested a big meal, insulin resistance would limit how fast the food energy would be transferred from the blood to the cells where it would be used.

During a famine, the ability to use the food that had been stored as fat was likely to mean the difference between life and death. Today, however, our environment has radically changed, and food is not only abundant, but the calories in it are more concentrated.

In the era of Big Macs, fries, candy bars and sodas, the great ability to store food as fat no longer serves its purpose. Instead, it can mean that damaging amounts of sugar end up circulating for long periods in our blood.

In the past, exercise would have reduced the sugar circulating in the blood. But today we're in an era of the couch potato, of TV, Nintendo, Game Boy and the Net, and more of it is stored as fat.

On top of that, Kahn has noticed that in the past few years schools have been reducing the amount of time spent on physical education.

"When you put it all together," he says, "there are more and more kids who are overweight, sedentary and have poor diets."

These are exactly the conditions that predispose a child to get Type 2 diabetes.

What can you do to keep the youngsters in your life from this environmental disease? The ideal answer is: make sure that they don't become overweight and that they exercise lots.

Kahn is a realist, however, and he knows that this is easier said than done. His best advice is, encourage them and support them in exercising more. Maybe you can't keep them from eating French fries with their peers, but you can encourage them to eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

On the Net: Visit the American Diabetes Association web site at

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