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What is Gestational Diabetes?

Rachel O'Reilly

During pregnancy, as many as 10% of women develop gestational diabetes (also known as high blood sugar). The thought of having diabetes while pregnant might be scary, but it is important to understand a few biological factors in order to put this condition into perspective. First and foremost, rest assured that high blood sugar levels are natural during pregnancy and that a healthy pregnancy and baby can still be achieved.

Let’s start with the basics. In the body, carbohydrates (fruit, grains, legumes and vegetables), are converted into glucose (sugar), which is sent to the blood for your body to use as energy. To regulate the amount of sugar in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases insulin to shuttle this energy into cells. Insulin resistance is when the cells no longer respond to insulin, and glucose continues to circulate in the blood. Too much circulating glucose can lead to complications such as inflammation and oxidative stress.

Pregnant women become naturally insulin resistant, meaning it’s actually normal for pregnant women to have higher blood sugar. Why? Let’s back up a couple hundred, thousand years before the days of bagels, cookies and venti caramel frappuccinos. In our primitive years as humans, sugar sources were scarce. As a natural instinct, the mother’s body would become insulin resistant (meaning she would not absorb glucose for her own body), in order to save sugar for the baby, enabling glucose to cross the placenta and reach the fetus. A growing baby depends on glucose; it is the primary food source for the fetus.

A woman’s body is extremely intelligent and during pregnancy blood glucose metabolism is dramatically altered. Blood glucose levels rise in a linear fashion throughout pregnancy to feed the fetus. The placenta simultaneously makes hormones like lactogen, estrogen and progesterone, which counteract the action of insulin. The placenta also makes potent enzymes that destroy insulin. Lastly, shifts in maternal hormones help suppress insulin, as does maternal weight gain.

While the reasons for developing gestational diabetes in today's world are understandable, this isn’t to say that you should ignore your doctor if he or she tells you you’ve developed gestational diabetes. It may be a great time, though, to analyze what types of foods you’re eating, and maybe make some trades for lower glycemic foods. Eating a lot of processed sugars and refined carbs can be disastrous for a pregnant mom because these foods quickly generate a high spike in blood sugar. While a natural carb craving is normal, these refined, carbohydrate dense foods are so readily available that they can be hard to avoid. Try having low-glycemic fruits, such as berries, instead of a croissant for breakfast, or half a sweet potato instead of bread. There are plenty of life-giving, nutrient-dense food options available! To manage pre-existing insulin resistance or to prevent insulin resistance, it’s important to eat a nutrient-dense diet from whole foods.

Consuming enough healthy fats will also be helpful in regulating blood sugars. Keep carbohydrate intake to about 400 calories per day and do resistance or strength training, which helps improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.

Here’s a one-day meal plan free of refined or processed foods, and high in nutrient-dense, blood sugar-regulating meals:  

  • Breakfast: curry sweet potato hash with two whole eggs and sautéed kale

  • Snack: chia seed pudding (chia seeds soaked in full-fat coconut milk) topped with fresh berries and chopped walnuts

  • Lunch: mixed greens salad with avocado, tomatoes, shredded beets, topped with grilled chicken

  • Snack: homemade hummus with sliced bell pepper and carrot sticks

  • Dinner: salmon with roasted cauliflower and side salad