Gestational diabetes develops when pregnancy hormones make a person resistant to the action of insulin. Without treatment, it can lead to a range of complications. It is possible to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes by following a healthy diet and maintaining a moderate weight.
Insulin is a hormone that helps to control blood sugar levels. Hormonal changes during pregnancy can make the body resistant to insulin, leading to an increase in blood sugar. A pregnant person may be able to produce more insulin to compensate, but some cannot, which results in gestational diabetes.
This article explains the diet that people can follow during pregnancy if they have gestational diabetes, including which foods to eat and avoid.
It will also outline other treatment options for gestational diabetes, possible complications, and tips for a healthy pregnancy.
Gestational diabetes develops 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 the body cannot produce enough of the hormone insulin during pregnancy. The pancreas produces insulin, which helps the body’s cells use sugar from the blood as energy.
The body will produce more hormones during pregnancy, and people may gain weight. These changes can result in cells using insulin less efficiently than previously, known as insulin resistance.
Becoming resistant to insulin means the body needs more insulin to handle sugar, or glucose, in the blood. If the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to keep up, this can lead to high blood sugar levels.
High blood sugar levels can be harmful to both the pregnant person and the unborn baby.
Insulin resistance is also related to carrying extra weight before pregnancy and physical inactivity.
The symptoms of gestational diabetes may include:
Learn more about gestational diabetes here.
It is important to eat a healthy diet if a person has gestational diabetes. The American Diabetes Association recommends using the diabetes plate method to help a person eat the right balance of nutritious foods.
To use this method, a person should fill half of a 9-inch plate with nonstarchy vegetables, a quarter with lean protein, and a quarter with a carbohydrate, such as a whole grain or starchy vegetable.
Examples of each of these foods are below.
A person can consult a doctor or dietitian about a healthy diet plan during pregnancy.
Avoiding foods that cause a spike in blood sugar levels is important if a person follows a gestational diabetes diet.
Blood sugar levels increase when people eat sugary foods, particularly refined or processed ones. People with gestational diabetes should avoid or limit foods with added sugar as much as possible.
Sugary foods to avoid include:
Although milk and whole fruits contain natural sugars, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) still recommends that people with diabetes include them as part of a balanced diet.
Starchy foods are high in carbohydrates, which can cause a rise in blood sugar. It is best to avoid or limit very starchy foods with a higher glycemic index, such as:
A person may want to switch from white, refined carbohydrates to whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, or oats.
Some foods and drinks are not obvious sources of sugar or carbohydrates. However, they may still contain high levels of both. Examples of these products include:
A pregnant person should avoid drinking alcohol throughout pregnancy as there is no known safe amount. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause a range of serious health problems for a baby.
To help manage blood sugar levels and eat healthily, the CDC give the following tips:
It can help to space meals and snacks evenly throughout the day. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that people with gestational diabetes consume three meals and two to three snacks per day. Doing this can reduce high blood sugar spikes after eating.
A person with gestational diabetes can monitor and log their blood sugar levels at different points during the day and keep a food and activity diary. This can show them how foods and activity affect their blood sugar levels.
Learn more about blood glucose levels here.
The NIDDK recommends the following tips for staying healthy during pregnancy:
Gaining weight during pregnancy is normal, but gaining too much or too little can pose health risks for a pregnant person and the unborn baby. A healthcare professional can give a person advice about ideal weight through pregnancy stages.
Following a healthy diet and exercising can help a person control their blood sugar levels and manage gestational diabetes. However, this may not be enough to control the condition in some cases.
Some people with gestational diabetes may need medication, such as insulin or metformin, to lower their blood sugar levels.
Learn more about using metformin during pregnancy here.
Gestational diabetes increases the risk of complications for both the pregnant person and the baby. Risks affecting the pregnant person include:
According to the CDC, the babies of people who have gestational diabetes have a higher risk of:
Around half of all people with gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes after pregnancy. After giving birth, maintaining a healthy body weight and controlling blood sugar levels can reduce this risk.
Gestational diabetes can affect anyone during pregnancy, but risk factors for developing the condition include:
Gestational diabetes typically develops around the 24th week of pregnancy. A doctor will usually test for the condition at around 15 weeks.
If a person notices any symptoms of gestational diabetes before testing, they will need to speak with a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
Once a doctor diagnoses gestational diabetes, they may refer the pregnant person to a dietitian. A dietitian can help create a diet plan that is appropriate for a person’s blood sugar levels and nutritional needs.
Gestational diabetes happens when pregnancy hormones make the body resistant to insulin. Sometimes, the pancreas can produce enough extra insulin to handle the glucose in the blood, but sometimes it cannot. This leads to high blood sugar levels, which can be harmful to a pregnant person and the unborn baby.
To regulate blood sugar levels, a person can choose a combination of nonstarchy vegetables, lean protein, and grains or starchy vegetables, as set out in the diabetes plate method.
Gestational diabetes can lead to complications during birth and health risks for the pregnant person and the unborn baby if a person does not get treatment.
People at higher risk of developing gestational diabetes include those who are obese or overweight, people with a family history of diabetes, and those who have previously given birth to a baby weighing more than 9 lbs.
Does type 1 diabetes increase the risk of gestational diabetes?
Having type 1 diabetes before becoming pregnant is different from gestational diabetes. A person who already has type 1 diabetes will need to work with a healthcare professional to maintain healthy blood sugar levels prior to becoming pregnant. Blood sugars that are well controlled prior to pregnancy reduce the risk of birth defects and complications during pregnancy.
A person with type 1 diabetes will need special care during pregnancy and may need increased insulin doses to maintain healthy blood sugar levels throughout the pregnancy. They will need to monitor blood sugars closely during pregnancy and should eat the same healthy diet as this article outlines.
Last medically reviewed on March 21, 2022
Our experts continually monitor the health and wellness space, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.
Current Version
Mar 22, 2022
Lana Burgess
Edited By
Ruth Eagle
Medically Reviewed By
Kathy Warwick, RD, LD
Copy Edited By
Chris Young
Jan 9, 2020
Lana Burgess
Edited By
Tracey Crate
Medically Reviewed By
Grant Tinsley, Ph.D., CSCS,*D, CISSN
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