Being pregnant is one of the best, most meaningful experiences a woman can go through.
When you’re pregnant, you become part of an amazing, inseparable duo; you and your baby start to share the same experiences, the same food, the same sleep schedule…and sometimes, the same health issues.
While some women get to eat whatever they want when they’re pregnant, others develop gestational diabetes and have to watch what they eat so as not to send their blood sugar to unhealthy levels.
I’m on the crusade to fight diabetes in all of us, but I’m especially concerned about women with gestational diabetes because their babies are automatically at risk for developing diabetes related issues down the line. And we don’t want that!
So let’s discuss a plan to keep moms as healthy as possible during this magical time known as pregnancy.
How Did I Get Gestational Diabetes?
While doctors still aren’t sure how gestational diabetes develops, they know that if you have high blood sugar while you’re pregnant, you definitely have it.
When we eat carbohydrates or sugar, we need to convert that glucose or sugar into fuel and energy our bodies can use. The problem with diabetes is that our cells don’t like making room for sugar and work against us, keeping it out on their own.
Insulin is the hormone responsible for getting sugar out of the blood and inside the cells. Our bodies can typically regulate the amount of insulin it needs to produce to get sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells. But during gestational diabetes, the hormones in the placenta that help the baby develop properly also block insulin from working in mommy’s body – causing insulin resistance.
So instead of getting moved into the cells, all this sugar becomes stuck outside the cells and crowds the bloodstream, creating high blood sugar levels, or hyperglycemia.
How Does Gestational Diabetes Affect Babies?
Diabetic women who become pregnant are at higher risk of developing birth defects. But since gestational diabetes only affects the baby after it’s been formed, but is still growing, the risk becomes macrosomia, or “fat” baby.
During gestational diabetes, mom’s pancreas has to work harder to produce more insulin to get rid of all the sugar in the blood that the cells are not absorbing. The placenta doesn’t absorb insulin, but it does let sugar pass through. This extra sugar goes right to the baby.
When the baby develops high blood sugar levels, the baby’s pancreas starts to produce additional insulin to eliminate all the extra sugar in the blood, just like mom’s does.
However, the baby doesn’t need all that sugar to develop, so all of that gets stored as fat, hence the term “fat” baby. If the baby is too big for a normal delivery, mom may need a C-section to get the baby out without causing damage to him or her.
As if being called a fat baby isn’t bad enough, babies with macrosomia either have very low blood sugar levels or very high blood sugar levels when they’re born. Babies with low blood sugar levels face higher risk of breathing problems. One the other hand, babies with excess insulin become at risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes as they get older.
Most women give birth to healthy babies if they keep their blood sugar in check.
Because of these serious issues, it’s important to start treating your gestational diabetes ASAP.
Does Gestational Diabetes Go Away?
Gestational diabetes usually goes away after pregnancy, but your “chances are 2 in 3 that it will return in future pregnancies”.
Sometimes women don’t know they have type 2 diabetes until they become pregnant and get diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Doctors will have to monitor these women to see if their blood sugar levels return to normal after pregnancy before they can be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes for sure.
However, an unfortunate connection seems to be that if you had gestational diabetes, you’re more prone to developing type 2 diabetes down the line, unless you modify your food choices and activity level.
How To Treat Gestational Diabetes
Mom, you’re going to need to keep those blood sugar levels the same as pregnant women who don’t face this issue, which means you’re going to need to work extra hard to follow pretty strict meal plans and exercise regularly.
Eating whole, unprocessed foods will not only keep your blood sugar in check, but will set you up for avoiding diabetes in the future.
Did you know that including regular exercise fights insulin resistance?
When you exercise, your body uses up the extra sugar in your blood without needing insulin to help. Speak with your doctor about starting an effective exercise regime to lower your blood sugar.
Your doctor may also want you to start checking your blood sugar levels to make sure you’re always on the right path.
The American Diabetes Association suggests women with gestational diabetes keep within these blood sugar ranges:
- Before a meal (preprandial): 95 mg/dl or less
- 1-hour after a meal (postprandial): 140 mg/dl or less
- 2-hours after a meal (postprandial): 120 mg/dl or less
Let’s talk about what you should eat to control your gestational diabetes.
Good Foods For Gestational Diabetes
While all these macronutrients affect your blood sugar over the course of a few hours, only carbs work quickly to raise your blood sugar levels because when they’re digested they turn into sugar.
Combining carbs and protein for three meals and two or three snacks every day will be a good way to keep your blood sugar levels from fluctuating too much. Remember, you need to eat a balanced diet not only for you, but for your baby.
Every meal should include complex carbs, protein, veggies, and fat. If you divide your plate of food, 1/4 of it should be lean protein, another 1/4 should be complex carbs, and the other half should be non-starchy veggies.
Before we get into specific meal ideas, let’s analyze these components a bit more.
How To Watch Your Carbs
Do not even think about going on a low carb diet when you’re pregnant.
You and your baby need the right kinds of carbs to ensure proper health and nutrition. Carbs help with digestion, brain functioning, and keeping us feeling full so we don’t overeat.
Complex carbs are made from unprocessed sources and digest slower (think whole wheat bread, quinoa, and oats). Simple carbs, which are typically overly processed and commercially sweetened, cause quick, high spikes in blood sugar levels. ALL carbohydrates will affect your blood sugar levels, but at different rates, which is why it’s important to stick to small portions of complex carbs.
Carbs are hiding in more than just bread. So you need to be on your A-game to make sure you don’t eat too many.
Here’s a list of foods that contain carbs:
- Milk and yogurt
- Fruits and juices
- Rice, grains, cereals, and pasta
- Breads, tortillas, crackers, bagels, and rolls
- Dried beans, split peas, and lentils
- Potatoes, corn, yams, peas, and winter squash
- Desserts, honey, syrups, pastries, cookies, soda, and candy
You should aim for two to three servings of carbs during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One to two servings of carbs should be suitable during snacks. A typical serve of carbs is approximately 15 g, so two serves would equal 30 g and so forth.
Make sure you’re counting all the carbs (including carbs from milk and veggies) when you tally up these servings.
Make Sure To Eat Your (Non-Starchy) Veggies & Fruit
Veggies provide you and your baby with vitamins and nutrients that are critical for maintaining a healthy diet, plus they have fiber to help “slow the absorption of carbohydrates”. And in fact, vegetables are a source of carbohydrate as well, the healthiest kind.
Try to aim for at least 5 or more servings of veggies and a small amount of fruit every day.
One serving of veggies is equivalent to ½ cup cooked, 1 cup raw, or 2 cups raw leafy veggies.
While most veggies don’t affect blood sugar levels, moms with gestational diabetes have to watch out for starchy veggies that act like carbs when eaten.
These veggies include:
Just ½ cup of any of those vegetables is equivalent to 15 g of carbs, or one carb serving.
Since fruit is a source of natural sugar, you should limit your intake to just one or two portions every day. Don’t eat all of your daily allotment in one sitting because that will all turn into sugar and cause your blood sugar levels to go haywire.
One serving of fruit is equivalent to one small fruit (like an apple or pear) or half of a larger fruit (like a banana or grapefruit).
Avoid drinking fruit juice because they typically contain way too many portions of fruit in one serving size. Fruit juices are just a very concentrated source of sugar and they’ll raise your blood sugar faster than you can say gestational diabetes.
Always Aim For Protein
Protein is so important for you and your baby because it helps your hormones (like insulin) work better and it helps repair and build new cells.
You should aim to have protein with both your meals and your snacks. When you eat protein with carbs, the protein helps control blood sugar levels by minimizing the quick digestion of the carbs. Protein also helps you feel fuller longer.
Pregnant ladies should eat around 70 g of protein per day.
Some healthy protein choices include:
- Lean beef
- Low fat cheese
- Cottage cheese
- Egg substitute
- Fish and seafood (watch out for mercury levels)
- Nut butters
Fats Are Your Friend…Really
If you want a smart baby, you should make sure to get enough healthy fat in your gestational diet. Actually, I don’t know if your baby will be the next Einstein, but I do know that essential fatty acids (which come from fat) will help your bun-in-the-oven develop a strong brain and nervous system.
Plus, if you didn’t eat fat, your body would have a harder time absorbing vitamins A, D, E, and K from your fruits and veggies.
If you’re constantly finding yourself with zapped energy levels, you may want to include more healthy fats in your diet. Consuming calories from good fats will send energy to both you and your baby (I’ll apologize in advance if this makes your baby kick more).
Make sure to include healthy fats in your diet such as:
- Healthy cooking oils (avocado, olive, macadamia)
- Nut butters (almond, peanut, cashew)
- Fatty fish (salmon, trout, sardines)
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, chia, hemp hearts)
So now that we have a general idea of what foods to eat, let’s put them together into some tasty meals and snacks!
Meal Planning For Gestational Diabetes
Without a doubt, meal planning is the most important part of your battle against gestational diabetes.
Like I mentioned earlier, you’ll need to eat three meals and two to three snacks every day. While eating this often probably won’t be difficult for you to do, figuring out healthy meals and snacks probably will be.
Choosing food on the low end of the glycemic index means you’ll always be eating foods with the least amount of sugar, which will not spike your blood sugar levels.
Keep in mind that your blood sugar levels will be at their highest early in the morning before you’ve eaten anything.
If you notice consistently high readings every morning, you may consider having “a bedtime snack that includes both protein and carbohydrates. This will help keep your blood glucose in check during the night”.
Always eat a small breakfast filled with protein and whole grains to help normalize your levels.
Eating fruits, fruit juices, milk, or simple carbs like cereals will only exacerbate your high blood sugar levels. Instead, aim to eat 30 g of carbohydrates, one or two servings of protein, and lots of non-starchy veggies.
Here are some great breakfast ideas that include protein, veggies, and a bit of fat:
- Broccoli and cheese omelet with 1 slice whole wheat toast
- Scrambled eggs with tomato, 1/2 English muffin
- 1 cup old fashioned oatmeal with 1/2 diced apple, 2 tablespoons sliced almonds, and cinnamon
- 1 small protein pancake and 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese
- 1 slice pumpernickel toast with almond butter
Continue to fuel your body through the rest of the day by aiming for 30 to 45 g of carbohydrates at lunch. Make sure to eat some veggies to keep you full until your next snack, and don’t forget about having some fruit to let those natural sugars boost your energy levels. But just remember to include all sources of carbs, including veggies, in your carb count.
Here are some of my favorite work-ready lunches to take with you:
- Curried Chicken Salad
- Whole wheat Greek turkey wrap with kale or spinach, low-fat feta cheese, tomatoes, and cucumber, with cherries on the side
- Lettuce wrap filled with chicken, avocado, and cheese, and 1 small mandarin
- My avocado egg salad on cloud bread, plus 1 medium plum
- “Mix together some cooked quinoa, white beans, chopped bell pepper, carrots and broccoli to make a grain salad. Toss with some olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add a nectarine or some grapes on the side and a small handful of dry roasted almonds, if desired”.
You should aim for around 45 g of carbs, which includes non-starchy veggies at dinner time.
I like making extra servings of whatever I’m eating for dinner so I can take it to work the next day.
Here are some easy go-to’s:
- 4 oz. fish, 2/3 cup couscous, 1/2 cup cooked green beans, 1 cup cut-up melon
- 1/2 cup whole wheat pasta with a simple tomato sauce, turkey meatballs, 1 cup salad
- Spaghetti squash with mushrooms and Gruyere cheese, 1 slice whole wheat garlic bread, 1 small peach
- Veggie chili, 1 small potato, 1 ¼ cup whole strawberries
- Skinless rotisserie chicken breast over salad with low-fat cheese, pecans, and dried cranberries
You should be eating something every two to three hours, so snacks are definitely a way to supplement your healthy meals.
Make sure to get around 15 g of carbs per snack. Try to snack between breakfast and lunch, and then again between lunch and dinner.
Most people consider the snack after dinner to be dessert, but since you need to watch your sweets, you can opt for something on the sweeter side, but you have to promise me you’ll pair it with a protein.
Here are some tasty snack ideas:
- Half a banana with almond butter and hemp hearts
- 1 oz cheese, 1 small nectarine, and 2 tablespoons walnuts
- 1 cup of plain low-fat Greek yogurt, ¾ cup berries, and chia seeds
- 1 hard boiled egg, baby carrots, and a cheese stick
- Tomato, fresh basil, low-fat mozzarella, and olives drizzled in olive oil
Gestational diabetes doesn’t have to cast a shadow on what should be the most exciting time in a soon-to-be mother’s life. With a little planning and a lot of dedication, you’ll be able to stay healthy, satisfied, and happy throughout the course of your pregnancy.
Plus, becoming this carb and sugar conscious while pregnant will set you up to be a great example for your child as they grow. They’ll learn how to eat nutritious meals and exercise just like you do. You’ll be an awesome healthy role model and we need more of those!
What’s the hardest part about having gestational diabetes? I’d love to hear some of your insight in the comments!