For many women, pregnancy is a brief and welcome respite from the normal calorie-counting, guilt-ridden eating habits that accompany the mixed messages we get from the media about the importance of both being thin and allowing ourselves well-deserved indulgences. A diagnosis of gestational diabetes, however, can sure throw a wrench into any pregnant woman’s plans.
Gestational diabetes (GDM) is a usually temporary form of diabetes that occurs in pregnant women who were not previously diabetic, as the result of normal hormonal changes that affect insulin sensitivity. (In most cases, it resolves upon delivering the baby.) During pregnancy, it’s normal to experience a modest reduction in your cells’ sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which facilitates the uptake of sugar from your blood into your cells. This reduction is by design: the less sugar your own cells take up, the more sugar is available in the blood to provide to the growing fetus for energy.
The trouble is that some bodies become too good at making sugar available to the baby, resulting in undesirably high blood sugar levels that can have negative consequences for both of you if they are not controlled. Risks for mom include a higher chance of developing regular Type-2 diabetes within five years of giving birth (though research suggests you may be able cut this risk by breastfeeding), and risks for baby include delivery complications related to macrosomia (excessive birth weight,) as well a higher risk of developing obesity or diabetes later in life.
If you are diagnosed with GDM, which usually happens around the 28th week of about 7 percent of all pregnancies, your doctor will recommend one or more therapies to help get your blood sugars under control. These are likely to include:
- A lower-glycemic diet— or, a balanced diet that focuses on combining moderate portions of “good carbs” like whole grains, low fat dairy, beans, vegetables and whole fruit, with proteins and healthy fats, to help minimize blood sugar spikes after eating.
- Moderate exercise (if permitted based on your medical condition) to help your cells take up excess blood sugar without the help of insulin. Even just taking a 30 minute walk after eating a meal can make a significant impact on blood sugar levels!
- Medications, including insulin, if needed.
Significantly cutting back concentrated sources of sugar like soda, soft drinks, juices, maple syrup/honey, ice cream, candy, pastries and cookies is an important first step to help lower blood sugar levels, but it’s important to note that truly low carb diets — like the Atkins or South Beach diets — are never appropriate during pregnancy. Both you and baby need adequate amounts of carbohydrates for energy to fuel growth and development. In the absence of available carbs for energy, your body is forced to burn fat as fuel, which produces acidic byproducts called ketones that, in large concentrations, can adversely affect the baby. If you do allow yourself an occasional sweet treat, be sure to keep the portion small and eat it after a mixed meal rather than all on its own in between meals.
Still confused about what to eat? Get inspired by some of these healthy, low-glycemic meals and snacks that feature “good carbs” paired with protein and healthy fats, and consider making an appointment with a registered dietitian to help you come up with other options based on your own personal likes and dislikes.
- Two slices of 100 percent whole grain toast with a vegetable omelet
- Low fat plain Greek Yogurt topped with fresh berries, bananas and nuts
- An apple with peanut butter
- Fresh sliced turkey, avocado and roasted red peppers wrapped in a small (6″) whole wheat tortilla
- Fresh veggies dipped in hummus
- Part-skim string cheese or low-fat cottage cheese with a handful of whole grain crackers
- Turkey chili with beans and veggies, topped with guacamole or low-fat sour cream
- A cup of mushroom barley soup, split pea soup with ham, or black bean soup accompanied by a side salad (rather than a roll or piece of bread)
- Baked or broiled chicken or fish served with lots of steamed or stir-fried veggies and a moderate portion (about 1 cup) of cooked brown rice or quinoa