What is gestational diabetes?
A common pregnancy problem, find out how to avoid or control gestational diabetes with our expert's advice
Gestational diabetes (GD) is a common condition referring to high blood sugars that are diagnosed in pregnancy, and it’s on the rise.
While it often resolves after giving birth, it can have immediate and long-term health implications for both mother and baby.
The good news is, when caught early, it’s a condition that many people are able to manage using a combination of diet and lifestyle. Let’s take a look at how.
What is gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes refers to high blood sugars that manifest (or are first picked up on) in pregnancy. It is thought that many women who are diagnosed with gestational diabetes in the third trimester of pregnancy may have had undiagnosed high blood sugars prior to or in the earlier stages of pregnancy, meaning that early testing could be helpful.
It impacts approximately 2-10% of expectant mothers in the UK, and arises when the body cannot effectively produce or use insulin, a hormone crucial for blood sugar regulation. It is more prevalent in these groups:
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- people who are not caucasian in ethnicity
- mothers who have previous babies weighing more than nine pounds
- people who have a high BMI
- women with a family history of diabetes
- women who have had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy.
The implications for both mother and baby include:
- heightened risk for developing type 2 diabetes in future
- premature delivery
- shoulder dystocia (when the baby’s shoulder gets stuck during vaginal birth)
- birth defects
- intra-uterine growth retardation
- low blood sugars at birth.
Whilst this might sound scary, the good news is that keeping blood sugars well controlled can alleviate these risks.
What are the symptoms of gestational diabetes?
Your healthcare professionals should be assessing your risk factors for gestational diabetes right from the start of your pregnancy. If they deem you high risk, you may need to undergo additional testing.
Whether you are low or high risk, it is worth being mindful of the signs and symptoms, given that early detection is key to managing the condition as well as possible.
While some people may not display noticeable symptoms, common signs to watch out for include:
- Excessive thirst and increased urination
- Frequent infections, including yeast infections
- Blurred vision
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is essential to seek medical advice. Diagnosis typically involves a glucose tolerance test.
What can I eat with gestational diabetes?
Diet should always be the first port of call when it comes to managing gestational diabetes, even if medication is required. If your blood sugars are not too extreme on diagnosis, you should be referred to a dietitian who will help get you set up with a blood glucose monitor and advise on diet and lifestyle.
The key here is managing your blood sugars. Monitoring is of utmost importance, as there are many things that can impact your body’s insulin response.
Whilst there are no banned foods, it is worth knowing that all carbohydrate foods will elicit some kind of blood sugar response, because by definition, carbohydrates eventually turn into glucose to be used as fuel. Foods particularly high in carbohydrate include all grains, sugary foods such as pastries, biscuits, chocolate and ice cream, and also fruit.
With that in mind, focusing your diet on whole, nutrient-dense foods that contain plenty of protein from animal products, tofu, beans and legumes; healthy fats from nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados and olive oil; and fibre from vegetables, beans and legumes will be key in managing those blood glucose levels.
It may be helpful for you to know that the order in which you eat your food can make a difference to blood glucose levels. So if you crave a sweet treat or love pudding, try having a smaller amount, and ensure it is right after a meal containing protein and vegetables.
Gestational diabetes eating plan
Here are a few suggestions for meals that may help to keep blood sugars in check during pregnancy, but please always refer back to your glucose monitoring and healthcare advice.
Breakfast: I’m a big fan of eggs and veggies for breakfast, and this can be done in so many ways! Take a look at these recipe ideas:
Healthy pepper, tomato & ham omelette
Veggie breakfast bakes
Lunch: For lunches I usually recommend salads, soups or some kind of vegetable tray bake, always including a good protein source. Here are some lovely recipes:
Griddled chicken with quinoa Greek salad
Red lentil, chickpea & chilli soup
Soy salmon & broccoli traybake
Snacks: Snacks involving Greek yogurt, seeds or hummus are all good options. Some recipe ideas below, but don’t underestimate the power of a plain handful of nuts to quell hunger pangs whilst keeping those blood sugars well managed.
Hummus snack packs
Berry yogurt pots
Chocolate chia pudding (go easy on the maple syrup for this one)
Dinner: My favourite hearty dinners often include a source of protein, tonnes of yummy flavours, and lots of different coloured vegetables. Also, remember that cauliflower rice and ‘courgetti’ can make great low-carb alternatives to pasta and rice.
Chicken with crushed harissa chickpeas
Cheesy autumn mushrooms
Healthy beef stew
It’s crucial to monitor your food intake in relation to your blood sugar response, and to spread meals and snacks evenly throughout the day to help prevent blood glucose spikes. Ask your healthcare professional if you require further support with this.
How can I avoid gestational diabetes?
While not all instances of gestational diabetes can be prevented, there are steps you can take to lower your risk.
Some individuals are more predisposed to the condition due to factors like family history or obesity. Maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular physical activity, and adopting a balanced diet can help reduce the likelihood of developing GD during pregnancy.
The bottom line…
Gestational diabetes is a common and manageable condition.
Early diagnosis, appropriate dietary choices, and regular medical supervision are key to ensuring the health of both mother and baby. This is achieved by focusing on a balanced diet, monitoring glucose levels, taking regular exercise, and adhering to medical interventions.
Katy is a nutritional therapist, as well as a registered nurse with over 10 years’ experience. She specialises in women’s health including hormones, fertility and pregnancy, as well as menopause and disordered eating. She worked in the NHS for many years and now focuses on her private practice, clinical mentorship, and supervising nutritional therapy students at University of West London. She holds a diploma in naturopathy and nutrition, a degree in anthropology, and postgraduate degrees in medical anthropology, adult nursing, and specialist community public health nursing, and is licensed by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT), and Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).
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