Gestational diabetes develops when a woman cannot produce enough of a hormone called insulin during pregnancy. It can lead to a range of complications. However, it is possible to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes by following a healthful diet and achieving or maintaining a moderate weight.
In this article, we explain the type of diet that an individual should follow during pregnancy if they have gestational diabetes, including which foods to eat and avoid.
We also consider other treatment options for gestational diabetes and the possible complications that may occur.
Following a healthful diet is important during pregnancy, particularly if a woman develops gestational diabetes.
For this reason, pregnant women should follow their doctor’s or dietitian’s recommendations and avoid trying to create their own meal plan.
High blood sugar levels during pregnancy may be harmful to both the woman and the growing fetus. It is important to monitor how many carbohydrates are present in the diet — including the type of carbohydrate and the frequency of consumption — to help manage blood sugar levels.
Keeping a food diary may make this easier. It is also important for women with gestational diabetes to monitor and log their blood sugar levels according to a doctor’s directions. Most women will need to check these levels in the morning and between meals. The results can indicate the amount and type of food that is safe for them to eat.
It can help to space meals and snacks that contain carbohydrates evenly throughout the day. Doing this can reduce the size of blood sugar spikes after eating.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development recommend that women with gestational diabetes consume at least three small-to-medium meals and between two and four snacks per day.
Other ways to help regulate blood sugar include:
- refraining from eating too many carbohydrates at one time
- sticking to foods that contain complex carbohydrates, such as fiber
- combining carbohydrates with protein or healthful fats
- avoiding skipping meals
- eating a protein-rich and high fiber breakfast
Eating low glycemic index foods
Eating foods that have a low glycemic index (GI) is another crucial factor in a gestational diabetes diet.
GI measures how rapidly a particular food increases blood sugar levels. The body breaks down foods with a low GI more slowly than those with a high GI.
The index classifies foods with a score of 55 or below as low GI. These foods are ideal for women with gestational diabetes who are trying to manage their blood sugar levels.
Low GI foods to eat include:
some starchy vegetables, such as peas and carrots
- some fruit, such as apples, oranges, grapefruit, peaches, and pears
All of these low GI foods release sugar into the blood slowly, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable.
Eating more protein
Eating protein alongside carbohydrates or choosing carbohydrate-rich foods that also provide protein helps balance blood sugar levels. Women with gestational diabetes should try to eat nutritious, protein-rich foods, such as:
Choosing unsaturated fats
Unsaturated fats are also part of any healthful diet. Examples of unsaturated fats include:
- olive oil
- peanut oil
- most nuts and seeds
- chia seeds
Avoiding foods that may excessively raise blood sugar levels is essential if a person is following a gestational diabetes diet.
Avoiding sugary foods
Blood sugar levels increase when people eat sugary foods, particularly those that have undergone refinement or processing. Women with gestational diabetes should avoid or limit sugary foods as much as possible.
Sugary foods to avoid include the following:
- sweet pastries
- ice cream
- fruit juice with added sugar
Women with gestational diabetes can enjoy milk and fruits in moderation, even though they contain natural sugars.
Avoiding highly starchy foods
Starchy foods are high in carbohydrates and can have a significant effect on blood sugar, so it is important to eat them only in small portions. It is best to avoid or limit very starchy foods, including:
- white potatoes
- white bread
- white rice
- white pasta
Although whole grains, such as whole wheat pasta and brown rice, are more nutritious, they are still high in carbohydrates. As a result, these foods may also be best in moderation.
Avoiding hidden sugars and carbohydrates
Some foods and drinks are not obviously sources of sugar or carbohydrates. However, they may still contain potentially harmful levels of both. Examples of these products include:
- highly processed foods
- some condiments, such as dressings and ketchup
- fast foods
Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gestational diabetes affects 2–10% of pregnancies each year in the United States.
This type of diabetes occurs when a woman’s body cannot make enough of the hormone insulin. The pancreas produces insulin, which helps the body’s cells use sugar from the blood as energy.
When a woman is pregnant, her body will produce more hormones, and she may gain weight. These changes may result in her body’s cells using insulin less efficiently than they did previously, which is called insulin resistance.
Becoming resistant to insulin means that the body needs more of this hormone to handle the sugar in the blood. Sometimes, the body cannot produce enough insulin to keep up, and this leads to a buildup of sugar in the blood.
The symptoms of gestational diabetes may include:
- being unusually thirsty
- urinating frequently
- frequent bladder infections
- blurred vision
- sugar in the urine that is detectable with testing
Following a healthful diet and exercising regularly can help many women control blood sugar levels and manage gestational diabetes. However, in some cases, this may not be enough to control the condition.
Blood sugar levels depend on the individual. Some women with gestational diabetes may need medication, such as metformin or insulin, to lower their blood sugar levels.
Gestational diabetes increases the risk of complications for both the pregnant woman and the baby.
The babies of women who have gestational diabetes have a higher risk of:
- weighing more than 9 pounds (lb), making delivery harder ()
- premature birth
- having low blood sugar
- developing type 2 diabetes as an adult
For the woman, potential complications include high blood pressure and having to give birth to a larger baby, which can increase the risk of excessive bleeding and the need for cesarean delivery.
About half of all women with gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes after pregnancy. Managing blood sugar levels during pregnancy reduces the risk of this happening.
Gestational diabetes typically develops around the 24th week of pregnancy. A doctor will test a pregnant woman for the condition at this time.
If a woman notices any symptoms of gestational diabetes before testing, she should speak to her doctor as soon as possible.
Women with a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes include those whose body mass index (BMI) is above 30 and those who have previously given birth to a baby weighing more than 10 lb. Women with a previous history of gestational diabetes are also more likely to get it again.
Once a doctor has diagnosed a woman with gestational diabetes, they will usually refer her to a dietitian. The dietitian can help create a diet plan that is appropriate for the woman’s blood sugar levels and nutritional needs.
Does type 1 diabetes increase the risk of gestational diabetes?
If someone has received a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, they will already be taking insulin to control their blood sugar.
Therefore, if they have blood sugar issues during pregnancy, doctors are likely to view this as an extension of the preexisting type 1 diabetes, rather than as a “new” condition of gestational diabetes. Of course, pregnant women with type 1 diabetes do need to monitor their blood sugar carefully under medical supervision.
It is also worth noting that, in reverse, having gestational diabetes seems to increase a woman’s risk of developing not only type 2 diabetes but also type 1 diabetes.
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.