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Pregnant woman testing her blood sugar levels

Gestational Diabetes Diet

Gestational diabetes is elevated blood sugar that can develop during pregnancy. It is diagnosed by a blood test done around 24-28 weeks pregnant. It is one of the most common pregnancy complications, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

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What is Gestational Diabetes?

Gestational diabetes is also known as carb intolerance. Normally, the carbs in our food are broken down into sugar. Our insulin then takes the sugar from the blood to the cells for use. However, when you have diabetes, the sugars don't get removed properly and build up in the blood. Pregnancy alone increases blood sugar spikes, to provide fuel to the fetus, but some bodies have a hard time handling this.

Why should I avoid high blood sugar while pregnant?

The sugars in a pregnant person’s blood enter the placenta, but the insulin doesn’t. This means the fetus will absorb a lot of sugar. To manage this sugar spike, your baby will make high levels of insulin. Once born, the baby will continue to make lots of insulin, which puts them at a higher risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

A gestational diabetes baby is also likely to be larger at birth, since insulin turns sugar into fat. This increases the chances of needing a c-section and your baby's shoulders getting stuck during vaginal childbirth. There is also an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease for your child.

Are Weight Gain and Gestational Diabetes Related?

Gaining weight does not mean you have gestational diabetes, but there can be a connection between gestational diabetes and gaining more than expected. The correlation isn’t completely understood, though it is likely related to increased insulin resistance.

Gestational Diabetes Risk Factors:

It is important to know that gestational diabetes is not your fault. Researchers still don’t know exactly why some women get it and others don’t, but they do know that it’s a hormone issue.

Risk factors may include:

  • Being overweight
  • Having prediabetes
  • Having had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Having an immediate family member with diabetes
  • Having previously delivered a baby weighing over 9 pounds

Treatment:

Changing the carbs you eat and decreasing the amount reduces the risk of both short and long-term consequences. Each person’s tolerance is different, but these general tips for a healthy pregnancy tend to be effective:

1. Focus on Protein:

Protein helps maintain a healthy blood glucose level and supports the growth and development of your baby. Some good sources of protein include:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Fish (Stick to 8-12 oz of low mercury options a week)
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Tofu
  • Beans

2. Choose Complex Carbs:

Not all carbs are created equal. Refined carbs break down to sugar quickly and cause a large sugar spike. White bread, pasta, rice, desserts, and breakfast cereals are all good examples of refined carbohydrates. You will want to avoid refined/processed carbs. Complex carbohydrates contain fiber healthy fats, causing them to break down into sugar slowly. Some good examples of complex carbs would be:

  • Beans
  • Berries
  • Greek yogurt
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Quinoa

3. Non-Starchy Vegetables:

You can eat large amounts of non-starchy vegetables without bumping your blood sugar up. These should take up the largest portion of your plate. Some good choices include:

  • Broccoli
  • Cucumbers
  • Green beans
  • Onions
  • Peppers
  • Leafy greens

More complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, peas, beets, squash, and carrots, can also be eaten, just in smaller portions (½ - 1 cup per meal)

4. Reduce Sugar Consumption

Any form of sugar (cane sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, agave) is released into the bloodstream quickly, leading to blood sugar spikes.

What to Avoid:

  • Fruit Juice
  • Soda
  • Sugary Drinks
  • Energy Drinks
  • Desserts
  • Ice Cream
  • Hydration Drinks

5. Be Careful with Grains

Whole grains are a controversial topic when it comes to gestational diabetes. While they may contain fiber, they only offer a small amount compared to their carbohydrate content. For example, a piece of whole grain bread can contain 5 grams of fiber but 20 grams of carbs. For this reason, some pregnant women can tolerate whole grains, while others cannot.

6. Low Impact Movement

Pregnancy is not the time to start a new intense exercise routine. If you were not exercising before pregnancy or are considered high risk, always talk to your doctor before starting a new movement routine. If you went on walks prior to getting pregnant, a 10-minute walk after eating can help your body absorb carbs.

About the Author
Sharon Arnold-Haier MS, RD, CDN, IBCLC, CDE
Nutritionist and Lactation Consultant

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