Affecting up to 10% of pregnancies each year, gestational diabetes can be a scary diagnosis. Here’s what to know you need to know to help ease your worries as a new mom.
BY: MCKENZIE CALDWELL, MPH, RDN, LDN
Gestational diabetes can seem scary during a woman’s pregnancy.
It can especially be overwhelming if you feel unsupported, have a difficult relationship with food, or have other life stressors that make managing your blood sugar feel impossible.
So what exactly is gestational diabetes, and why does it happen?
Gestational diabetes is elevated blood sugar that happens only in pregnancy. Your body’s most efficient source of energy is glucose, a simple sugar molecule that is in the carbohydrates we eat. When we eat carbohydrates, let’s say an apple, your gut will break down the starches and sugars so you can more readily absorb glucose into your blood.
But your blood doesn’t require all that sugar; it’s the other cells in your body that do. As you eat your apple, your body is signaling to your pancreas to release a hormone called insulin. Insulin’s job is to tell all the other cells in your body that they can let in that glucose. So as they open up and pull the necessary glucose from your blood, your blood sugar goes back down and your cells are happy.
As you can tell, insulin plays a significant role in regulating blood sugar levels. For those with Type 1 diabetes who can’t make insulin, they require insulin shots or a pump to ensure their bodies can use the carbs they are eating. In the beginning stages of Type 2 diabetes, cells start to become insulin resistant – a condition in which the pancreas can still produce insulin but cells do not respond normally to increase its sugar uptake, resulting in elevated blood glucose levels.
In pregnancy, a woman’s body will change the way it uses glucose so more energy can be provided to her growing fetus. On top of that, the placenta naturally releases hormones (including estrogen, cortisol, and human placental lactogen) which can block insulin’s action, thereby increasing the risk of insulin resistance. For some women, their bodies can compensate by increasing the production of insulin whereas others may not be able to produce enough insulin to keep up.
This systemic disruption is what leads to gestational diabetes.
While the risk of developing it depends on the individual, nearly every pregnant woman has at least one risk factor for gestational diabetes. And if this is something that happens to you, don’t fear!
Here are three myths about gestational diabetes, and their truths to ease your worries.
1. Women with gestational diabetes can’t have carbs.
In this crazy storm of low-carb and keto diet trends, many women (and unfortunately even some medical professionals) believe carbs should be avoided as much as possible to control their blood sugar in pregnancy.
The truth is, every pregnant person needs carbs to thrive as an independent human and also to grow a healthy baby – even if they have diabetes. This is especially the case in the first trimester when carb needs are a little higher, and nausea makes it difficult to keep much down besides simple-tasting starchy foods.
Avoiding carbs will likely lead to fatigue, an inability to focus, dangerously low blood sugar levels, and increased carb cravings that can result in bingeing or feeling out of control around food. The trick here is how you eat carbs – eating consistently throughout the day, pairing up carbs with protein, fat, and fiber, and engaging in joyful movement can have a tremendous impact on your blood sugar.
2. You can’t have fruit at breakfast if you have gestational diabetes.
This myth comes from the idea that a combination of natural hormone cycles compensating for overnight fasting to help you wake up can lead to higher morning blood sugars for women with gestational diabetes.
For some, this makes it more difficult for them to tolerate a carb-heavy breakfast. However, choosing higher fiber whole fruits such as berries, and pairing them up with more fiber, protein, and fat from foods like eggs, Greek yogurt, avocado, nuts, and seeds can help your body process these carbs efficiently. In fact, research indicates that eating fruit does not increase the risk of gestational diabetes; rather, it lowers it.
Checking your blood glucose before and after breakfast can help you learn the way your body responds to eating these nutritious and delicious foods.
3. You can’t eat flexibly and intuitively if you have gestational diabetes.
As more people are moving away from rigid diets and turning to Intuitive Eating to establish a healthier relationship with their body, having gestational diabetes can feel like a setback. However, it is absolutely still possible to optimize your baby’s growing needs as well as your own physical health and relationship with food.
This can get nuanced in how you can tune into hunger, fullness, and cravings when you’re worried about how food will impact you and your baby. However, this balance is possible. Work with a qualified nutrition professional who specializes in intuitive eating and, with a little guidance, you can eat in a way that promotes balanced blood sugar without feeling like you’re following a strict diet during pregnancy.
Remember, there are precautionary steps that you can take before getting pregnant to help lower your risk for gestational diabetes.
Start by asking your doctor to check your hemoglobin A1c, which is a measure of your average blood glucose over ~3 months. Check in on your relationship with food with a registered dietitian to see if there are any healthy habits you can implement before getting pregnant.
Taking care of your growing baby starts with the care you give yourself.
Adapted from the original post.
HEADER IMAGE: NATALIA DERIABINA
McKenzie Caldwell, MPH, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian based in Charlotte, NC who specializes in prenatal & postpartum nutrition. With an intuitive eating approach, McKenzie empowers new and expecting mothers to heal their relationships with food, recover from disordered eating, and manage conditions like gestational diabetes so they can achieve their health & life goals in pregnancy and beyond. Learn more at Feed Your Zest Nutrition & Wellness.