With 15,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S., juvenile Type 1 diabetes is a significant health problem, a silent killer of sorts. In fact, Type 1 diabetes is the second most common chronic disease in kids today, second only to asthma.

While Type 2 diabetes tops headlines as the nation struggles with the obesity epidemic, Type 1 diabetes shouldn’t be taken too lightly. I recently co-authored a medical study where we found that children who live in areas with higher sun exposure — a vitamin D source — were 80 percent less likely to develop this chronic disease than those who live in areas with low sun exposure. This disease can lead to severe problems like blindness, kidney failure, and heart trouble. No child should have to go through this.

Winter is the time when vitamin D levels are the lowest. Sadly, it’s also when the sun plays a game of hide-and-seek. That’s why we need to find alternative ways of getting this vital nutrient on a daily basis through sun exposure when possible as well as through vitamin D rich foods like milk and supplementation. This winter, I am cooperating with GOT MILK? on an educational campaign meant to inform parents and families of this urgent health concern.

The easiest solution is the sun! Kids want to go out and play anyway, so let them out to catch some rays for about 10 to 15 minutes a day. If your children have limited access to sun, one way to increase their intake is milk. Like with the sun, vitamin D is present in milk (100IU per glass). It is also available all year around.

Also, keep in mind that vitamin D intake is just as important for adults as it is for kids. According to studies, about two-thirds of Americans are vitamin D deficient, so moms and dads should also follow these tips:

• Outdoor play: The sun can be your friend, not to mention the easiest, most fun way to obtain vitamin D. Experts suggest children go outside and play for 10 to 15 minutes a day between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Limit unprotected sun exposure to that time period. Afterward, rely on clothing for sun protection or a clay-based sunscreen.

• Got milk?: Milk is a natural source of vitamin D, plus it has calcium perfect for building strong bones, muscles and teeth. It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children get at least 1000 mg of calcium daily, which is the equivalent of three cups of milk.

• Eat right: Some food options are rich in vitamin D, making it easy to keep up with the daily requirements. Some brands of yogurt may contain vitamin D and some fatty fishes contain it.

• Regular check-ups: Get your vitamin D levels checked annually. Ask your doctor for the 25-hydroxyvitamin D test, also called a 25(OH)D. Getting tested is the only way to determine if you’re deficient. Vitamin D levels are usually lowest in March. Tests are also available through www.grassrootshealth.org.

• Watch out for supplements: While supplements are readily available in stores, not all supplements are created equal. Vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol, is the most effective form of vitamin D supplement. Almost all milk contains vitamin D3. Check the label.

For more information on getting the most of your calcium and vitamin D, visit www.gotmilk.com.

Dr. Cedric Garland is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and co-author of the study titled, “The Association Between Ultraviolet B Irradiance, Vitamin D Status and Incidence Rates of Type 1 Diabetes in 51 Regions Worldwide,” which was published in the journal Diabetologia.

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