Gestational Diabetes Recipes and Meal Ideas

Pregnant woman making salad
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Food cravings and aversions may make it difficult to eat well during pregnancy. Unfortunately, a diagnosis of gestational diabetes can feel like another challenge was piled onto your plate.

Luckily, with a little extra effort and a few adjustments to your grocery list, it's possible to enjoy your meals while still keeping gestational diabetes under control. Learn more about this form of diabetes to empower your decision-making skills for a safe and healthy pregnancy.

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

Understanding Gestational Diabetes

Women 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. This can be caused by hormonal changes in pregnancy, genetics, or excess weight gain.

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

How Does Insulin Work?

Imagine that insulin is like a key. Insulin opens up cells so they can let the 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 an extended period of time. This can lead to pregnancy complications and health risks for the mother. Several different factors can cause gestational diabetes:

  • Other pregnancy hormones interfere with insulin
  • The body is unable to produce enough insulin
  • Cells become resistant to insulin (the key is rusty and doesn't work)

Blood Sugar Guidelines

Ideally, your blood sugar during pregnancy should be as follows:

  • 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

Glucose Testing

A routine part of prenatal care includes something called 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 you don't pass the follow-up glucose tolerance testing, your doctor will want to keep a closer eye on your blood sugar for the remainder of your pregnancy. It's possible that making a few dietary changes or getting more physical activity will be enough to keep your levels down. If not, medication may be recommended.

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. Because carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar, balancing your intake of carbs throughout the day can help keep your levels from spiking.

Certain carbohydrates are digested more slowly, keeping blood sugar levels on an even keel. Choosing high fiber carbs instead of "empty" ones will give you better control of your blood sugar levels (also known as glycemic control).

High-Fiber Carbohydrates
  • 100% Whole grain bread

  • Brown rice

  • Whole fruit

  • Oatmeal

  • Baked potatoes or yams (skin-on)

  • Spaghetti squash or zoodles (spiralized zucchini)

Empty Carbohydrates
  • Sesame bagel

  • White rice

  • Fruit juices or jelly

  • Processed/sugary cereals

  • Mashed potatoes or potato chips

  • Spaghetti pasta

When it comes to gestational diabetes, everyone is a little bit different. One person may do fine eating 200 grams of carbohydrates per day, while another is better off sticking to 100 grams or less. Monitoring your blood sugar at home, and communicating with your doctor and an RD will help you find the right meal plan for you.

Start by cutting out sources of added sugar in your meal plan. Reducing your intake of soda, juice, candy, dessert, honey, syrup, and processed foods with hidden sugars can positively impact your glycemic control in a major way. Sometimes, this one change is all that's needed.

Try the Plate Method

Generally, non-starchy vegetables are a great addition to any nutrition plan, especially for those managing diabetes. Examples of non-starchy vegetables include:

  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Kale
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Zucchini

Using this list, you can try the plate method, a simple strategy to eyeball the right portions at each meal. Start by filling 50% of your plate with non-starchy vegetables. Next, fill 25% of your plate with starches (such as peas, potatoes, beans, corn, whole-grain crackers, etc.), and 25% 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. Avoid piling your plate too high by aiming to keep it about 1 inch high. Choose food items that are higher in fiber and lower in sugar for optimal health.

Healthy Snack Suggestions

When choosing snack foods, make a habit of reading the Nutrition Facts Label to check the grams of carbohydrates per serving. Look for items that contain some fiber and protein. A few options you can try include:

  • Carrots with hummus
  • Celery sticks or apple slices with peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup of cottage cheese with 1/2 cup of fresh fruit
  • 1/4 cup of dried fruit and nut mix (avoid trail mixes with candy pieces)
  • A hard-boiled egg
  • 3 cups of light popcorn
  • 5 whole-wheat crackers with 1 piece of string cheese

Check your blood sugar regularly to get a better idea of how your body reacts to different foods. A diagnosis of gestational diabetes can be upsetting at first, but try to see it as an opportunity to experiment with new recipes. Not only will you reap benefits during your pregnancy, but you can go on to share healthy habits with your growing family.

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, don't underestimate physical activity as a means to manage gestational diabetes.

Walking for at least 10 minutes per day, and gradually building up to 30 to 60 minutes per day is an excellent goal. The earlier you begin a physical activity program in pregnancy, the easier it will be to maintain throughout all three trimesters. Consider a prenatal yoga class, pilates, or swimming as low-impact options. You might even meet some other moms-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. Don't feel like this is 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.

This mistake can cause serious issues including an oversized baby, leading to a C-section delivery or excessive bleeding and tears during vaginal birth. Mothers with uncontrolled gestational diabetes risk birthing an infant with breathing issues, jaundice (liver issues), or low blood sugar. The risk of stillbirth is also higher.

Later in life, up to 70% of women who had gestational diabetes will go on to develop type 2 diabetes. Their babies are also more likely to grow up to become obese and have diabetes.

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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Article Sources
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