Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy in a woman who has not previously been diagnosed with diabetes. The condition is fairly common: the CDC estimates that every year, between 2% and 10% of U.S. pregnancies are affected by gestational diabetes.
What Causes Gestational Diabetes And How Is It Diagnosed?
Gestational diabetes occurs when a woman’s body fails to make adequate insulin. This results from normal hormonal changes related to pregnancy.
“During the last trimester of pregnancy, your body needs two to three times more insulin than normal, and for women with gestational diabetes, their pancreas cannot keep up with this need,” says Amanda Crosby, RD, LD, CDCES, a dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Franciscan Healthy Living Center Lafayette.
There are often no outward signs of gestational diabetes, though some women may notice increased thirst or urination. The condition is commonly diagnosed in the 24th through 40th week of pregnancy through a glucose challenge test. During this routine screening – typically scheduled for all pregnant women in late second or early third trimester – the expectant mom has her blood sugar level tested after she drinks a sugary glucose solution.
Following an initial screen, women whose blood sugar is high may need a longer, repeat screening that spans multiple hours. If blood sugar levels continue to be high on the longer glucose tolerance test, a diagnosis of gestational diabetes is confirmed.
Health Implications Of Gestational Diabetes
Gestational diabetes, if unmonitored or untreated, can lead to a range of potential health challenges for both mother and baby. These include excessive birth weight or preterm labor for the newborn and, in severe cases, even stillbirth. Gestational diabetes can cause an elevated risk for high blood pressure or preeclampsia in the mother – a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication.
“If a baby gets too much glucose from the mother’s elevated glucose, they run the risk of being born large for gestational age (more than 8 lbs 13 oz.), developing hypoglycemia – a condition marked by low blood sugar – or they could require a NICU stay,” Crosby says. “An elevated birth weight for the baby could also lead to problems during labor, leading to a C-section,” she adds.
Nutritional Considerations When Diagnosed With Gestational Diabetes
Expectant moms diagnosed with gestational diabetes should prioritize good nutritional choices for the benefit of their health and the health of their baby.
“A healthy eating plan includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains (oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, barley, whole grain bread, etc.), low fat dairy, nuts, and lean meats,” Crosby says.
Women with gestational diabetes should limit their intake of processed foods, sugary beverages and foods, and fried foods.
To help maintain a healthy glucose level, women diagnosed with gestational diabetes should eat something every 2-5 hours, aiming for at least three meals per day and a snack between meals if they feel hungry.
It’s a good idea to prep small snacks of proteins or veggies to avoid the temptation of grabbing bags of chips or sweets when days get too busy.
Examples of healthy snacks include:
- An apple with peanut butter
- Clementine oranges and nuts
- A small, 6-inch quesadilla
- Crackers and cheese
- Yogurt and berries
- Pita chips and hummus
While planning a daily diet, be especially mindful of carbohydrate intake – since eating too many at once could cause a spike in blood sugar.
“Ideally, pregnant women should try to limit their carbohydrate intake to 170 grams/daily, spread out evenly throughout the day,” Crosby says.
To avoid a spike in glucose levels in the morning, women should plan to eat a bedtime snack of around 30 grams of carbohydrates. “The liver can release stored glucose levels while you sleep and cause elevations in the morning. Most moms find that eating a bedtime snack helps prevent this,” Crosby explains.
Women who develop gestational diabetes have a 50% chance of developing type 2 diabetes within five to ten years of pregnancy. As a result, we recommend that new moms continue to follow healthy eating patterns and get adequate daily exercise even after their baby is born.
Get Help from a Diabetes Educator
If you’re diagnosed with gestational diabetes, make plans to talk with a diabetes educator who can help you create a care strategy that includes learning how to check your glucose, developing a tailored meal plan, and creating a physical activity schedule to keep your blood sugar levels in check to protect your health – and the health of your growing baby.