Pregnancy can be an exciting time, but it also comes with some unique stressors.
If you’re diagnosed with gestational diabetes, you might be wondering what you can do to help ease the stress of your diagnosis and have a healthy pregnancy and baby.
Keep reading to learn how you can naturally manage gestational diabetes with your diet.
What is gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes, commonly abbreviated as GDM, is when a woman develops high blood sugar levels during her pregnancy. About 10% of pregnant women are diagnosed with gestational diabetes each year in the United States.
Unlike type 1 and type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes often goes away once your pregnancy is over. However, having gestational diabetes does increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Gestational diabetes develops when pregnancy hormones cause insulin resistance, raising blood glucose levels. Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas and is needed to help glucose (sugar) enter your cells from your bloodstream.
When your body doesn’t use insulin properly, such as the case with insulin resistance and gestational diabetes, blood sugar accumulates and rises in your bloodstream.
As the placenta feeding your baby grows, certain hormones that can act against insulin are produced, further worsening insulin resistance. This typically occurs during weeks 20 and 24 of pregnancy, which is why most pregnant women are asked to be screened for gestational diabetes after 24 weeks.
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Risk factors for gestational diabetes
While any woman can develop gestational diabetes, certain risk factors increase your likelihood of getting gestational diabetes. Some of the known risk factors are:
- Overweight and obesity; a pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI) over 25 indicates being overweight and a pre-pregnancy BMI over 30 indicates obesity
- A lack of physical activity
- Previous gestational diabetes or prediabetes
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Diabetes in an immediate family member
- Previously delivering a baby weighing more than 9 pounds
- Race; women who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American have a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes
- Advanced maternal age (being 35 or older during pregnancy)
Complications of gestational diabetes
Gestational diabetes carries risks of complications for both the mother and the baby if it’s not well-controlled during pregnancy. Some of the possible complications of gestational diabetes include:
Excessive birth weight
High blood sugar during your pregnancy can cause your baby to grow a lot. Babies who weigh nine pounds or more may be more likely to become wedged in the birth canal, have birth injuries, or need a cesarean section birth.
Early (preterm) birth
High blood sugar may increase your risk of early labor and delivery before your due date.
Serious breathing difficulties
Babies born early to mothers with gestational diabetes may experience respiratory distress syndrome, which makes breathing difficult.
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
Sometimes babies of mothers with gestational diabetes have low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) shortly after birth due to high insulin levels in the womb.
Obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life
Babies of mothers with gestational diabetes have a higher risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.
Untreated gestational diabetes can result in a baby’s death either before or shortly after birth.
Considerations for your diet with gestational diabetes
If you’re diagnosed with gestational diabetes, you shouldn’t go on a restrictive diet during your pregnancy to try to manage it. You must eat enough to support your nutritional needs as well as your baby’s.
Carbohydrates (carbs) have the most significant impact on your blood sugar levels. You can still eat carbohydrates if you have gestational diabetes. The most important thing about eating carbs is to eat moderate portions and keep your intake consistent throughout the day. A consistent carbohydrate diet helps to promote balanced blood sugar levels.
Simple carbs raise your blood glucose more quickly and can worsen blood sugar control. Simple carbs are low in fiber and higher in starch and sugars. Examples of simple carbs include refined grains (white bread, white rice, white pasta, etc.), sugary beverages, and sugar-sweetened desserts.
Eating protein with carbohydrates helps stabilize your blood sugar levels and helps make you feel full. For example, eating an apple with a slice of cheese is better for your blood sugar control than eating an apple by itself.
Eating protein with carbs can also help reduce your risk of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Low blood sugar is especially dangerous during pregnancy because you might feel dizzy and fall, which could hurt you and your baby.
Foods to eat on a gestational diabetes diet
A gestational diabetes diet is similar to a diet for people with diabetes. It’s similar to a Mediterranean diet meal plan, which is a healthy way of eating for everyone, not just those with diabetes.
Some of the foods to include in a gestational diabetes diet meal plan include:
1. Whole grains
Whole grains are a type of carbohydrate, but they fall under the “healthy carbohydrate” category. They are rich in fiber, a type of carbohydrate that doesn’t raise your blood sugar level. The higher the fiber content, the less impact the food will have on your blood glucose.
A few examples of whole grains are oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat bread, bulgur, barley, and whole-wheat pasta. Whole grains are also richer in protein than refined grains like white rice and white bread.
2. Non-starchy vegetables
Most vegetables are low carbohydrate and rich in fiber, so they don’t raise blood glucose levels significantly. Vegetables are also a great source of vitamins and minerals.
A gestational diabetes diet meal plan should include plenty of non-starchy vegetables such as:
- Beans (green, wax, Italian)
- Brussels sprouts
- Cabbage (green, bok choy, Chinese)
- Green leafy vegetables (collard, kale, mustard, turnip)
- Salad greens (chicory, endive, escarole, lettuce, romaine, spinach, arugula, radicchio, watercress)
- Squash (cushaw, summer, crookneck, spaghetti, zucchini)
- Sugar snap peas
- Swiss chard
3. Nuts & seeds
Nuts and seeds are good sources of healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, and protein. Fat and protein don’t raise blood sugar as carbohydrates do. You should aim to eat protein with all meals and snacks on a gestational diabetes diet.
4. Meat, chicken, eggs, & fish
Animal products are rich in protein and free of carbohydrates. Eating protein with carbohydrate foods can help balance your blood sugar.
Foodborne illness can be especially harmful during pregnancy. Be sure to cook fish and meat to the recommended temperatures and avoid raw meat or fish, like sushi. Deli meats should be heated until steaming to reduce the risk of listeriosis.
Legumes like beans and lentils are a great plant-based source of protein and are an excellent source of fiber. Fiber can help ease pregnancy- and hormone-related constipation.
Foods to avoid if you have gestational diabetes
Foods to avoid on a gestational diabetes diet are those that are likely to cause sharp increases in blood sugar, such as:
1. Sugary treats, candy, etc.
Foods high in added sugar cause blood glucose spikes and should be eaten sparingly if you have gestational diabetes. Sweetened foods like candy, ice cream, cake, etc., are usually sweetened with sucrose (table sugar), corn syrup, or high-fructose corn syrup and can worsen blood sugar control.
2. Refined grains
Refined grains are stripped of their nutrient- and fiber-rich parts, leaving behind a lower-fiber, lower-nutrient grain.
White bagels, flour tortillas, white bread, and white rice are just a few examples of refined grains that should be avoided on a gestational diabetes diet.
3. Other foods with added sugar
Sugar is added to foods that might otherwise seem healthy, like yogurt, certain nutrition bars, and cereal. Check the nutrition facts label and try to avoid foods with more than five grams of added sugar per serving. Aim to keep your added sugar intake below 30 grams per day.
4. Sugary drinks
Sugary drinks are the leading contributor of added sugar in most people’s diets. Drinks like soda, sweetened teas, sugary coffee drinks, energy drinks, and many more are packed with sugar.
Meal and snack ideas for gestational diabetes
Here is an example one-day meal plan for a gestational diabetes diet:
- Vegetable omelet with eggs, spinach, tomatoes, and shredded cheese
- One slice of whole-wheat toast
- One cup of unsweetened herbal tea
- Salad with grilled chicken, sliced avocado, carrots, cucumber, hard-boiled eggs, and dressed with balsamic vinegar & olive oil
- Roasted salmon
- Brown rice (¼ of your plate)
- Baked zucchini slices (tossed in olive oil before cooking)
- Mandarin orange slices and cottage cheese
- Apple and a mozzarella cheese stick
- Eight ounces of plain yogurt mixed with a drizzle of honey and natural peanut butter
- Celery & carrot slices with hummus
- Triscuit crackers and cheese slices
- One ounce of nuts
Other lifestyle changes to help manage gestational diabetes
Be physically active
Staying active can help promote healthy blood sugar levels, but it also helps keep you fit for a healthy pregnancy.
Low-impact exercises like walking and swimming are great choices to reduce the strain on your joints. Aim for 30 minutes of activity most days of the week.
Monitor your blood glucose
If your healthcare provider recommends checking your blood sugar levels at home, be sure to do it as often as recommended. This can help you identify trends and make lifestyle changes to meet blood sugar targets better.
Get enough sleep
As difficult as it can be to get good quality sleep during pregnancy, try to prioritize it. Sleep deprivation worsens insulin resistance, which means your blood sugar levels might suffer from a poor night’s sleep.
Gestational diabetes is a high-risk diagnosis during pregnancy, but it can often be managed with diet and lifestyle changes. Eating a diet low in refined carbs and sugars and including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, legumes, nuts, seeds, and high-quality protein can help you reach your blood sugar goals.