If you’ve recently been told you have gestational diabetes, a form of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy, don’t panic. “It’s not the end of the world. This is very common,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City. The key to a healthy pregnancy with gestational diabetes, and giving your baby a healthy start, is keeping your blood sugar under control.
What Does Gestational Diabetes Mean for Me and My Baby?
Your gestational diabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean you had diabetes before your pregnancy, or will continue to have it after you give birth. The exact cause of gestational diabetes isn’t entirely clear, but researchers have some clues: During pregnancy, your body makes special hormones that support baby’s development and put your body through other changes, such as weight gain. These changes cause insulin resistance, which is when your body’s cells don’t use insulin well. All women have some insulin resistance as pregnancy progresses, but most can produce enough insulin to overcome the resistance. Gestational diabetes occurs, though,when your body is not able to make and use all the insulin it needs for pregnancy. Gestational diabetes can affect anyone (even women who aren’t at obvious risk for type 2 diabetes) but researchers believe weight and family history may increase risk of developing the condition.
When you have gestational diabetes, it’s absolutely critical to keep your blood sugar under control to keep you and baby healthy. Untreated or poorly managed gestational diabetes can cause problems for your baby, like being born too early, weighing too much (which can make delivery difficult), having low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) right after birth, or breathing problems. Taking action right away to manage your blood glucose levels can help prevent gestational diabetes-related pregnancy complications.
The first step? Adjusting your diet.
“The very first thing that you should start working on after you’ve been told you have gestational diabetes is your diet,” says Sandra Arévalo, RDN, a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Food choices, amounts, and timing are all important in keeping your blood glucose levels in target range. Your health care team will help you create an eating plan that fits your lifestyle, and keeps you and baby healthy throughout the duration of your pregnancy. “It’s important that you visit a registered dietitian [or] diabetes educator to access what kind of foods you need to change right away,” says Arévalo. Until then, these five diet rules for gestational diabetes are a great place to start:
1. Watch your carbs
“Patients should be mindful of the number of carbs that they’re consuming in each meal and the type of carbohydrates they’re consuming,” says Sonal Chaudhry, MD, an endocrinologist at NYU Langone Health. Learn the difference between simple and complex carbs here.
2. Lose weight if your doctor recommends it
If you’re more than 20% over your ideal body weight, gaining weight during pregnancy at a slower rate or losing some weight may help better manage gestational diabetes. “Depending on their pre-pregnancy weight, [women] should limit the number of calories [to lose weight],” says Dr. Chaudhry. You can do this by eating a variety of foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, limiting fat intake to 30% or less of daily calories, and watching your portion sizes. (Make sure to discuss any weight-loss goals with your ob-gyn to make sure it’s safe during pregnancy.)
Many women who’ve had gestational diabetes go on to have type 2 diabetes years later, which could be due to excess weight (before, during, or after pregnancy), poor response to medication, or being young at the time of their gestational diabetes diagnosis. According to the American Diabetes Association, keeping your weight healthy during pregnancy and after the baby is born can improve glucose metabolism and help you avoid developing type 2 diabetes in the future.
3. Avoid excess weight gain
Weight gain is a natural, healthy part of pregnancy. Those extra pounds are from your growing baby; increased fluid, breast tissue, and blood volume; and maternal fat and nutrients. According to the American Pregnancy Association, women of average weight should gain 25 to 35 pounds, women who are underweight should gain 28 to 40, and women who are overweight should gain 15 to 25. Anything above those guidelines, or the limit your health care team suggests for you, could increase your chances of pregnancy-related complications.
4. Eat small frequent meals
Eating mini meals throughout the day (every two hours or so) can not only help with nausea and morning sickness during pregnancy, but spreading your carbohydrates evenly throughout the day can also help keep your blood glucose stable, which is critical for managing gestational diabetes.
5. Balance your meals.
“You really want to think about getting that blend of carbohydrates, protein and fat,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City. For example, your breakfast might be oatmeal with a tablespoon of peanut butter and berries on top, and lunch might be a salad mixed with whole grains, like quinoa, and a lean protein, like chicken. Here’s how to build a diabetes-friendly meal.