Hearing the word “diet” while pregnant seems a little ill-fitting, but if you’ve received a diagnosis of gestational diabetes, you’ll need to be careful about your carbohydrate and added sugar intake. This shift can be challenging, especially if pregnancy cravings have you drooling over cakes and cookies.
If you feel restricted and overwhelmed, that’s completely normal. Here, we’ll take the headache out of what to do and what to eat. We’ll talk about what gestational diabetes is, what causes it, and who is at risk of developing it.
We’ll also give you a sample diet to follow and a few helpful tips and tricks to ensure you have a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby.
What Is Gestational Diabetes?
Three types of diabetes are type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes. There is also a condition called prediabetes, where blood sugar levels are high but not yet considered diabetic.
When we consume food, our bodies break it down into glucose, a simple sugar that our cells can use for energy. When glucose enters the bloodstream, it signals the pancreas to produce insulin, a hormone that carries glucose from the bloodstream to the cells that need it.
For people with diabetes, the pancreas can’t produce enough (or any) insulin to remove the amount of glucose in their bloodstream, or their cells have become resistant to the insulin delivering the glucose.
Let’s examine how this works in all four diabetes-related conditions.
Type 1 Diabetes
This type of diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where a person’s body attacks the pancreas and causes it to stop producing insulin. Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, but not always. There’s no cure for type 1 diabetes, and a person with type 1 will be insulin dependent for life.
Type 2 Diabetes
The most common type of diabetes is type 2 diabetes. This type of diabetes develops over time. A person with type 2 diabetes cannot produce enough insulin to keep up with their blood glucose levels or has developed insulin resistance.
Researchers aren’t sure the exact cause of type 2 diabetes, but a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight are two common risk factors.
During pregnancy, a woman’s body grows an organ called the placenta. The placenta functions as an endocrine organ, producing hormones that change the way certain processes in the body happen and helping the baby grow and develop properly.
Hormone secretions from the placenta can cause excess glucose to be stored in the blood. If the body cannot produce enough insulin to keep up with the glucose levels, the person may develop gestational diabetes.
What Causes Gestational Diabetes?
Like type 2 diabetes, the cause of gestational diabetes isn’t well known. Although hormones play a role, it’s unclear why the pancreas cannot keep up with excess glucose production or why cells may become resistant to the insulin that delivers the glucose.
Certain risk factors make a person more likely to develop gestational diabetes, including:
- Being overweight
- Being African American, Pacific Islander, American Indian, or Asian American
- A family history of diabetes
- A previous diagnosis of prediabetes
- A previous diagnosis of gestational diabetes
You can decrease your risk of developing gestational diabetes by adopting an active lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight before and during pregnancy.
What Diet Is Good for Gestational Diabetes?
Two of the most important aspects of maintaining a healthy pregnancy with gestational diabetes are staying physically active and adopting a balanced diet. This doesn’t mean you’re stuck eating lettuce for the rest of your pregnancy, but you will have to make smarter choices than pizza and ice cream.
Your healthcare provider is your go-to source for gestational diabetes education, including understanding how carbohydrates and sugar affect your blood sugar levels. Your healthcare team may include a registered dietitian who can help you understand better food choices.
If you don’t have access to these resources, that’s okay. Here’s an easy guide to keep you healthy while navigating pregnancy with gestational diabetes.
The Truth About Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient that your body uses for fuel. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, so while you have gestational diabetes, it is important to limit the number of carbs you eat and ensure they come from quality sources.
Carbohydrates are found in:
- Milk, yogurt, and dairy products
- Whole fruit and fruit juices
- Grains like rice, cereal, and pasta
- Bread, crackers, tortillas, bagels, and rolls
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Root vegetables like potatoes
In addition, processed foods like chips, cakes, ice cream, and snacks contain carbohydrates and added sugar.
The difference between complex and simple carbohydrates is that complex carbohydrates keep you satisfied longer and are in foods with additional nutritional value, like fruit or whole grains.
Most of the time, you’ll find an abundance of fiber, vitamins, and minerals packaged in with complex carbohydrates, making them a much better choice for someone with gestational diabetes.
How Many Carbs Should I Eat?
Your doctor or dietitian can help you review your diet and ensure you eat the proper amount of carbohydrates. Of those carbohydrates, ensuring you get enough from each complex carbohydrate source will also be important.
- Grains, breads, and starchy vegetables. Aim for six servings a day from this food group. Choose whole-grain bread over white bread and brown rice instead of white rice. It’s also a better option to choose sweet potatoes over white potatoes.
- Vegetables. Try to eat between three to five non-starchy vegetables per day. Good veggie choices include leafy greens, carrots, peppers, and mushrooms.
- Fruits. You need two to four servings of fruit per day. Of all fruits, berries have the lowest glycemic index, which makes them great options for people with gestational diabetes. Avoid fruit juices, which can pack in an excessive amount of carbohydrates and sugar in small portions.
- Dairy. To support your body and your baby, hit four servings of dairy per day. Good sources include high-protein Greek yogurt, and low-fat milk and cheese.
What About Other Foods?
Your fat and protein intake are also important and key to keeping you full. Lean protein sources like chicken, tofu, and pregnancy-safe fish are good choices. Healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, and nuts are extremely low-carb and help support your body and your baby.
How Can I Manage Gestational Diabetes?
If you have gestational diabetes, you have a lot of control over changing your body for the better. Adopting a healthy diet with gestational diabetes safe meal plans is the first course of action, but you can also make other lifestyle changes to support healthy blood sugar levels.
Exercise is important during pregnancy, and your healthcare provider will help you understand how much physical activity you need to thrive. The American Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise each week to reduce your risk of developing diabetes and support a healthy lifestyle.
One of the easiest ways for pregnant women to get this exercise is by walking. Talk to your doctor about adding walking to your daily routine.
Avoid Added Sugar
Learning to read labels is a staple of good diabetes care and a valuable tool to help you avoid weight gain. While pregnant, learn to read the label and understand how much added sugar is in each product.
Added sugar creates unnecessary calories that are void of any nutritional value. It’s also a good idea to avoid artificial sweeteners in your food.
Many are considered safe for pregnancy, but some are not. Artificial sweeteners may increase sugar cravings and make it hard for you to make healthy choices.
Watch Your Portion Sizes
Portion sizes matter and can help you eat a balanced diet of healthy foods. If you need help with portion sizes, consider using measurements until you can safely eyeball the appropriate amounts.
Healthy Pregnancies and Beyond
Having gestational diabetes means paying close attention to your blood sugar levels to ensure they don’t go too high. You can manage your gestational diabetes with exercise and healthy eating.
Protecting your health now lowers your risk of developing gestational diabetes-related pregnancy complications and also means protecting your baby’s health both in utero and for years to come.
For more information on gestational diabetes and other pregnancy topics, check out more articles on Diabetic.org. Here you’ll find answers to commonly asked questions about health, wellness, fertility, and pregnancy. You’ll also find information about gestational diabetes, including recipe ideas for meals that are gestational diabetes safe.
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Fact Checked and Editorial Process
Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Camille Freking and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
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