My daughter  was a healthy, happy and active child. In her ninth year, while on vacation in Florida, she became ill and fell into, what we were told, was a diabetic coma. We’d had no signs that we knew of but, in the years to come, we were to learn that they had been there: although she was not overweight, she was often thirsty and her nose itched (what is referred to as “the diabetic salute” as children rub their noses).

She is now in her mid thirties and has experienced decades of multiple daily insulin injections, failing eyesight, complications and a difficult pregnancy that ended last week with the blessed arrival of her son. The pregnancy alone took a massive toll on her body. Her family lived through those months with our breath held: praying for the best, fearing the worst. In my daughter’s case diabetes was unavoidable as genetics played out their willful game in her system. But such is not the situation with so many.

According to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, cases of diabetes in America are projected to double, even triple, by 2050.  A staggering one in ten American adults now suffer from diabetes – and the numbers are expected to increase dramatically over the next 40 years with as many as one in three having the disease.

Diabetes is the leading cause of adult blindness, kidney failure and limb amputation as well as being a primary contributor to heart attacks and strokes. It is also linked to dementia, cancer and some forms of lung disease. Diabetes takes a devastating toll on   so many systems in the body.

While Type 1 (Juvenile Diabetes or “insulin dependent”) is almost unavoidable due to genetic factors, Type 2 diabetes is, in many cases, preventable with the right diet and life-style. The prevalence of adults in the U.S. who are obese is alarmingly high, with about one-third of adults cited as obese in 2007-2008.

Tragically, in the last 30 years the number of children who are overweight has tripled to 15%. When you add the overweight and obese statistics together, the problem becomes clear. Think of it: one third of our nation’s children are carrying too much weight. We are killing them with food and condemning them to a life-time of hardship and suffering.

The two primary factors in creating obese and overweight children are 1) not eating the right kinds of foods and 2) not enough exercise on a daily basis. The toxic combination of fast food diets along with sedentary lifestyles is creating a generation of children who are facing issues like high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease.

And consider, too, the many psychological issues that being overweight creates: low self-esteem, teen eating disorders that develop in response to feelings of inadequacy and the teasing and bullying that makes our children feel inferior. Forgive me if I sound overly harsh, but when I see a child waddling behind his/her parent in WalMart, clutching (and consuming) a family-sized chocolate bar and panting to keep up, two words come to mind: child abuse.

Programs and policies to prevent obesity and diabetes need to be put in place at every level. We must start in our homes and extend good dietary and physical exercise practices to our schools. Beyond that we must make a fundamental change in our society by placing the emphasis upon physical health and the resultant self-esteem. Parental love is not best demonstrated by a soft couch, a remote control and a bag of cookies. It is shown by respect for the physical and psychological self, a family walk in the evening and fruit in the refrigerator.

If the suffering of our children and general populace were not enough to make us change our ways, think of the toll on our country’s financial well-being and strength. The CDC estimates that the current cost of diabetes is $174 billion annually — $116 billion of which is in direct medical costs. Research suggests that the financial weight may easily double in the next 20 years (according to the American Diabetes Association).

Our nation cannot bear this burden. Our children cannot bear the physical and emotional cost. It is time to make changes.

Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.