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Which Foods Can Help Type 1 Diabetes Kids Make Insulin

Type 1 diabetes, food and kids

When children are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, the news can be both frightening and confusing for the kids as well as their parents. Now researchers in North Carolina have reported on how eating certain foods may help type 1 diabetes kids make insulin, which can have a significantly positive impact on their lives.

How can some foods help type 1 diabetes?

About 5 percent of all cases of diabetes are type 1, and they are most often diagnosed in children between the ages of 2 and 3 years and between 10 and 12 years of age. Approximately 1 out of every 400 children and adolescents in the United States has type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is characterized by the failure of beta cells in the pancreas to produce insulin. Preservation of beta cell function can be measured by looking at a person’s C-peptide concentration.

The promising news about type 1 diabetes is that when individuals are first diagnosed with the disease, they often still retain some ability to secrete insulin for several months or even years. To support this ability, researchers have noted that children and adolescents with type 1 diabetes who eat certain foods can support the secretion of insulin for a while.

In this new study from investigators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a total of 1,316 children and adolescents with type 1 diabetes were evaluated. These individuals were part of the SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth study, the largest examination of childhood diabetes in the United States.

Previous research has suggested that certain nutrients, such as vitamins D and E, omega-3 fatty acids, and branched-chained amino acids, especially leucine, provide some type of protection against type 1 diabetes. In particular, leucine has an ability to promote insulin secretion.

Therefore, researchers examined how foods containing these nutrients related to fasting C-peptide concentrations. When the dietary habits of the participants were examined, the authors found that the addition of foods rich in leucine and omega-3 fatty acids to the kids’ diet allowed them to produce insulin longer; in fact, up to two years after diagnosis.

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Even though the children and adolescents still needed to take insulin on a daily basis (as do all individuals who have type 1 diabetes), making their own supply of the hormone may help reduce their risk of future diabetes complications, according to Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, professor of nutrition at Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill. Such complications, including diabetic retinopathy that can result in blindness, diabetic neuropathy (loss of feeling in the feet), kidney problems, skin disorders, and other health challenges are among those that often affect individuals in later years and the longer they have the disease.

The discovery that eating certain foods may have a significant impact “also opens the door for a new approach that could really benefit the lives of these children,” according to Mayer-Davis. What are those foods?

Foods high in leucine include soy and soy products, chicken and turkey (white meat), lowfat cottage cheese, cod, haddock, pork, egg whites, pollock, snapper, spirulina, tuna, perch, cream cheese, and tuna, among others. Nuts and whole grains are considered good to fair sources.

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are mainly marine based and include tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines, although nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseeds, and soy are also good sources. Consuming these foods, however, does not eliminate the need for daily insulin.

The study’s authors point out that their results “support further study of the potential role of branched-chain amino acids to enhance sustained insulin production in type 1 diabetes.” They also note that participants ate foods containing these nutrients and did not take supplements to get them.

Parents of children with type 1 diabetes may want to discuss the findings of this study with their physician to determine whether including more foods shown to promote insulin production may be beneficial.

Mayer-Davis EJ et al. Nutritional factors and preservation of C-peptide in youth with recently diagnosed type 1 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2013; 36:1842-50

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