Every mother hopes for a healthy pregnancy, but sometimes complications develop. Gestational diabetes is one of the most common pregnancy complications in the United States, with 7–24% of all pregnant women developing the condition. If left untreated, it could cause health problems for both you and your baby (1). Luckily, gestational diabetes is completely manageable with proper diet, exercise, and blood glucose monitoring.
Below, you’ll learn what gestational diabetes is, what it means for you and your baby, and how a low-glycemic diet can lead to a healthy pregnancy.
What Is Gestational Diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy. If managed properly, it usually goes away after you give birth.
Like other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes occurs when a woman’s body can’t process carbohydrates properly, leading to high blood sugar. Here’s how it works: When you eat, food is broken down into glucose for energy. When glucose enters the bloodstream, it signals your pancreas to produce the hormone insulin. Insulin helps glucose move from your bloodstream to your muscle, fat, and liver cells where it’s used for energy (2).
When a mother has gestational diabetes, either she can’t produce enough insulin or the insulin she has isn’t doing its job (called insulin resistance). Glucose (sugar) stays in the bloodstream, instead of getting sent off to cells for energy. Over time, the high levels of blood sugar can cause health problems (3).
What Causes Gestational Diabetes?
How Do You Know if You Have Gestational Diabetes?
The signs and symptoms of gestational diabetes are extremely subtle. Plus, some of the most common warning signs — like the frequent urge to pee — are often written off as pregnancy side effects. Another symptom includes being thirstier than normal (5).
Some mothers have an increased risk of developing gestational diabetes, particularly if you (6):
- Are overweight or have a high BMI
- Had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
- Have family members with Type 2 diabetes
- Have high blood sugar
- Have PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome)
How Can You Lower Your Chances of Developing Gestational Diabetes?
If you’re overweight, losing a few pounds prior to getting pregnant can help lower your chances of developing gestational diabetes (6). Pregnancy is not the time to try shedding a few pounds — your baby needs that weight to grow and be healthy. Your healthcare provider will work with you to ensure a healthy weight gain throughout your pregnancy.
There are a few things you can do during pregnancy to help you and your baby. Treatment options aren’t all that different from regular diabetes: keep a healthy diet, stay active (talk to your doctor about physical activity), and monitor your blood sugar. If those three things aren’t enough, your doctor might prescribe insulin or medication.
Diet for Gestational Diabetes: What to Eat and What Not to Eat
A healthy diet is the most common (and beneficial!) treatment option if you have gestational diabetes. Since diabetes is a disease that affects your metabolism, chances are you will have to change your diet from before you became pregnant.
Since carbohydrates and sugar turn into glucose (blood sugar) during digestion, you’ll need to monitor your carb intake carefully. If you’re monitoring your blood sugar (done with a glucose meter), you’ll notice your blood sugar rises a little after eating a small amount of carbs, and a lot if you eat a large number of carbohydrates. Raising your blood sugar by a large amount — called a blood sugar spike — is what you’re trying to avoid.
So, what should your diet look like? One high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats, with limited amounts of carbohydrates.
Eat: Low Glycemic Foods
Managing gestational diabetes is completely possible with a balanced diet centered on healthy, low-glycemic foods. The glycemic index is a ranking system showing how much a particular food raises blood sugar levels. The glycemic index ranks foods from 0 to 100, with 0 having no impact on blood sugar levels and 100 raising your blood sugar astronomically.
Studies show that women who eat a low-glycemic diet during pregnancy lower their risk of needing insulin to control blood sugar (7). Low glycemic foods include:
- Meat and poultry: Beef, chicken, pork, lamb, eggs, and bone broth all provide lean protein, vitamins and minerals. Buy grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork and poultry whenever possible, and avoid undercooked meat and eggs. Avoid highly processed foods like lunch meat and hot dogs.
- Seafood: Salmon, tilapia, cod, catfish, tuna, and anchovies are great protein sources and provide healthy omega–3 fatty acids. Avoid raw fish like sushi and oysters, and seafood that is high in mercury, like mackerel and swordfish (8).
- Full-fat dairy products: Dairy can provide protein, vitamins, and minerals. Avoid unpasteurized dairy during pregnancy and soft cheeses (8).
- Healthy fats: Cook with saturated fats like grass-fed butter or coconut oil, which contain a low smoke point. Use healthy oils like avocado oil and olive oil as salad dressings, and incorporate nuts and seeds into your diet as snacks.
- Non-starchy vegetables: Vegetables are filled with micronutrients. Enjoy leafy greens like spinach and lettuce, and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, brussels sprouts, asparagus, and broccoli. Avoid starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and sweet potatoes as they are extremely high on the glycemic index.
- Low-sugar fruits: Fruits like avocado and berries (cherries, strawberries, and blueberries) rank extremely low on the glycemic index and are a great source of dietary fiber. Be cautious around high-sugar fruits like mangos and bananas, as they can spike your blood sugar.
Avoid: Foods that Spike Your Blood Sugar
Foods that rank high on the glycemic index will raise your blood sugar considerably, which is what you want to avoid when diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Be extremely cautious of the foods listed below, and check your blood sugar with a glucose monitor after eating.
Everyone is different, and it’s best to work with your doctor to devise a low carb diet best suited for you and your baby.
- Sugar: Foods with added sugar like candy, desserts, sugary drinks (like soda), and ice cream are best avoided all together. If the cravings are fierce, search the internet for low carb dessert recipes.
- Starch: Starchy vegetables, although high in vitamins and minerals, can spike your sugar more than white bread. It’s best to avoid potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, parsnips, and other high-carb vegetables.
- Grains: Bread (even whole wheat and whole grain bread), pasta, white rice, and even oatmeal are extremely high in carbohydrates. It’s best to limit these foods as much as possible.
- High-sugar fruits: Dried fruit, fruit juice, and certain raw fruits are extremely high in sugar. Avoid these foods or limit whole fruit to small portions.
Follow a Healthy Diet for a Healthy Baby
As long as you monitor your blood glucose levels closely and work with your doctor to develop an exercise plan and meal plan, your pregnancy and birth should go smoothly. Gestational diabetes typically develops around week 24 of pregnancy, so be sure to consult your doctor if you show any signs or symptoms (9).
If you follow a healthy diet and keep your blood sugar in check, most gestational diabetes goes away after pregnancy. However, 50% of women who develop gestational diabetes risk being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes later in life. Complications with gestational diabetes include an early delivery, a baby being born weighing more than 9 pounds (increasing the probability that the baby will be born via C-section), or the baby having high blood sugar or Type 2 diabetes as an adult (9).
Follow a Healthy, Low Carb Diet for Gestational Diabetes
So, what is the best diet for you and your baby? A diet that focuses on whole foods low on the glycemic index, as prescribed by your healthcare provider or registered dietitian.
If you need help getting started with a low carb diet or need recipe ideas, we recommend the following resources:
- Perfect Keto recipe library: Plenty of low carb recipe ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even desserts
- Keto Diet 101 e-book: This book is filled with tips on how to get started on the keto diet, on which some individuals with gestational diabetes have found success. Talk to your doctor before starting any diet.
Your doctor will work with you to monitor your blood sugar and develop a diet plan that’s right for you.