Gestational Diabetes Recipes and Meal Ideas

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A diagnosis of gestational diabetes can feel confusing and scary. The good news is that there are more resources available to you now than ever before, and gestational diabetes is treatable. Learn more about this form of diabetes to empower you to have a safe and healthy pregnancy.

According to the American Diabetes Association, gestational diabetes affects 10% of pregnancies in the U.S.

Understanding Gestational Diabetes

People who develop diabetes symptoms for the first time during pregnancy are considered to have gestational diabetes. In general, diabetes is characterized by blood sugar levels that are too high. In gestational diabetes, these higher blood sugars are caused by the body's inability to make extra insulin to meet its increased needs. This can be caused by hormonal changes in pregnancy. People with a family history of gestational diabetes are more likely to develop the condition.

How Does Insulin Work?

When we eat carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks them down into a form of sugar called glucose, which enters the bloodstream. As blood glucose levels go up, this triggers the pancreas to release the hormone insulin.

Insulin is like a key. Insulin opens up cells so they can let glucose in and use it for energy. When this system is working properly, blood sugar levels return to normal quickly, as glucose is either used up by cells or stored as energy for later use.

In gestational diabetes, blood sugar remains too high for too long. This can lead to pregnancy complications and health risks for the mother. Gestational diabetes can occur when other pregnancy hormones interfere with insulin, or when the body is unable to produce enough insulin to meet increased needs during pregnancy, due to insulin resistance that occurs during pregnancy.

Glucose Testing

A routine part of prenatal care includes a glucose challenge test. Typically, this test is completed between weeks 24 and 28 of pregnancy. This is your doctor's way of figuring out how well your body handles a large dose of sugar.

You should receive instructions before going in for the test. Expect to be provided with a sweet-tasting drink at the lab. After drinking it, you'll be required to wait either 1 or 2 hours to have your blood sugar levels tested. Depending on your results, your doctor might send you for another 3-hour follow-up glucose tolerance test before diagnosing you with gestational diabetes.

Treatment for Gestational Diabetes

If your blood sugar results aren't within the recommended limits for the follow-up glucose tolerance test, your doctor will want to keep a closer eye on your blood sugar for the remainder of your pregnancy. It's possible that making dietary changes or getting more physical activity will be enough to keep your levels within recommended limits. If not, medication may be recommended. Either way, testing your own blood sugar will be a part of your daily routine.

Blood Sugar Guidelines

Ideally, your blood sugar during pregnancy should be:

  • Fasting (first thing in the morning before eating): 95mg/dl or less
  • One hour after a meal: 140mg/dl or less
  • Two hours after a meal: 120mg/dl or less

Eating for Diabetes Management

One of the first things your doctor may suggest is a consultation with a registered dietitian (R.D.). Dietitians are specially trained to educate patients on what to eat. Carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar, which is crucial for every aspect of our bodies (including our brains!). So it's important to include carbohydrates at meals and snacks, in addition to a source of protein and fiber.

Eating three meals and two snacks throughout the day can help prevent dips or spikes in blood sugar. Including a source of fiber-rich carbohydrate as well as protein at each meal or snack also helps to keep blood sugar levels more stable. If you've previously skipped meals or snacks, eating meals and snacks evenly spaced throughout the day is a good first step to managing blood sugar levels.

Good sources of high-fiber carbohydrates include:

  • 100% whole grain bread, crackers, tortillas, cereal, etc.
  • Whole grains, such as quinoa, whole wheat, oatmeal, and brown rice
  • Whole fruit, including frozen options
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes or yams, winter squash, and corn
  • Beans and lentils (these also contain some protein)

When it comes to gestational diabetes, everyone's body responds differently to different variables. Monitoring your blood sugar at home and communicating with your doctor and an RD will help you find the right meal plan for you.

Try the Plate Method

A helpful way to help ensure your meals are balanced with carbohydrates, protein, and fiber is to use the "plate method." Start by filling one-third of your plate with non-starchy vegetables (asparagus, eggplant, cucumber, carrots, etc.). Next, fill another third of your plate with starches (such as peas, potatoes, beans, corn, whole-grain crackers, etc.), and the remaining third of your plate with protein (such as chicken, fish, tofu, or eggs).

Add 1 cup of dairy (like yogurt or cottage cheese) or a whole piece of fruit on the side, if you like. Choosing higher-fiber versions of carbs is ideal for blood sugar management, but remember that including protein in the meal or snack helps to balance blood sugars even if you occasionally opt for a lower-fiber carb option.

Balanced Snack Suggestions

When choosing snack foods, try to include a source of protein in addition to fiber-rich carbohydrate. A few ideas to get you started:

  • Veggie slices with hummus and nuts
  • Apple slices with peanut butter
  • Cottage cheese with fresh or frozen fruit
  • Dried fruit and nut mix
  • A hard-boiled egg and a piece of fruit
  • Popcorn and a piece of cheese
  • Whole-wheat crackers with cheese

Check your blood sugar regularly to get a better idea of how your body reacts to different foods. Again, everyone responds differently. A diagnosis of gestational diabetes can be overwhelming. Asking your doctor for resources, including a consultation with a registered dietitian, can you feel more supported and provide meal and snack ideas.

How Exercise Affects Blood Sugar

Exercise during pregnancy has been shown to provide numerous health benefits and minimal risks to the mother or developing fetus. While you should always talk to your doctor about safe exercises to do while pregnant, as well as exploring movement that you enjoy, don't underestimate physical activity as part of your plan to manage gestational diabetes if you are able.

Referring to exercise as "movement" may open up many other ways to move each day. And you can start wherever you are at, physically. Walking for 10 minutes per day, and gradually building up if and as you are able, is a great place to start.

The earlier you begin a physical activity program in pregnancy, the easier it may be to maintain throughout all three trimesters. But don't let that stop you if you're farther along in your pregnancy and want to start moving more now. Consider a prenatal yoga class, Pilates, or swimming as low-impact options. You might even meet some other parents-to-be.

Medications for Gestational Diabetes

It's possible that even after changing your eating habits and exercise routine, your blood sugar levels will continue to remain too high during pregnancy. This is not your fault, just as developing gestational diabetes in the first place was not your fault. Continue to work with your doctor to get your blood sugar levels under control. Doing so will ensure the best outcomes for your pregnancy.

The preferred medication for gestational diabetes is insulin. Insulin does not cross the placenta, so you don't need to worry about it harming your baby. Because blood sugars can fluctuate during different stages of pregnancy, you'll probably be advised to monitor your levels at home to maintain the correct dosage. Don't worry, your doctor will walk you through the process each step of the way.

The Dangers of High Blood Sugar

Getting a handle on your blood sugar is essential for a healthy pregnancy. Taking the time when you're first diagnosed to make some changes can help you avoid complications during pregnancy, labor, and after giving birth. Because high blood sugar is something we can't always feel, it might seem easy to ignore.

Ignoring gestational diabetes can cause serious issues including a larger baby, which could lead to a C-section delivery or excessive bleeding and more severe tears during vaginal birth. Mothers with uncontrolled gestational diabetes have an increased risk of birthing an infant with breathing issues, jaundice (liver issues), or low blood sugar. The risk of stillbirth is also higher.

A Word From Verywell

With help from your doctor, it's possible to take control of gestational diabetes. If you feel overwhelmed by a new diagnosis, take advantage of the resources available at your doctor's office. Remember, you're not alone in managing this condition. Gestational diabetes is more common than many people realize, and it doesn't need to rule your life. A healthy pregnancy is still well within reach.

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8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Diabetes Association. Gestational diabetes.

  2. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Gestational diabetes.

  3. American Diabetes Association. Insulin basics.

  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Glucose screening tests during pregnancy.

  5. American Diabetes Association. Understanding carbs.

  6. Hassan D. Diabetes plate method. Michigan State University Extension.

  7. American Diabetes Association. Smart snacks.

  8. Ming WK, Ding W, Zhang CJP, et al. The effect of exercise during pregnancy on gestational diabetes mellitus in normal-weight women: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2018;18(1):440. doi:10.1186/s12884-018-2068-7

By Elizabeth Woolley
Elizabeth Woolley is a patient advocate and writer who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.