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Are you at risk for gestational diabetes?

By The Health News Team | March 16, 2023
Pregnant woman holding her belly and a plate of donuts

You probably know that a healthy diet is good for your overall health. Balanced nutrition can help you live longer, lower your risk of chronic disease, boost your immunity and far more. However, not everyone recognizes that good nutrition is exceptionally important during pregnancy.

“Pregnancy is a time of intense fetal growth and significant maternal changes,” says Dr. Mark Zyman, a Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group board-certified OBGYN affiliated with Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns. “Poor nutrition — both undernutrition and excessive caloric intake — can be associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes.”

According to Dr. Zyman, the placenta, a tissue that forms between the uterus and a developing fetus, is where the exchange of oxygen and nutrients between mother and fetus takes place. The umbilical cord helps the exchange happen while also removing waste products from the fetus.

If there is poor nutrition during pregnancy, both the mother and the infant are affected. For example, if poor nutrition leads to maternal obesity, several complications can occur, including:

The risk of gestational diabetes — for mom and baby

Another serious complication of obesity during pregnancy is gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy in women who don't already have diabetes. Gestational diabetes occurs when a mother’s body doesn’t produce enough insulin during pregnancy. Insulin helps get blood sugar into the cells so that it can be used as energy.

Testing for gestational diabetes, using a glucose screening or a glucose tolerance test, usually occurs between weeks 24 to 28 of a woman’s pregnancy. Testing may be performed earlier in a pregnancy if the mother is at greater risk for gestational diabetes due to a personal or family history of gestational diabetes, certain preexisting conditions or race.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the babies of women with gestational diabetes are at risk of high birth weight, premature birth and low blood sugar. The babies are also at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. Mothers with gestational diabetes are at increased risk of recurrent gestational diabetes with a future pregnancy; developing prediabetes or diabetes; and developing heart disease, including heart attack or stroke.

Treating gestational diabetes

It is crucial that gestational diabetes is treated. “Treatment of gestational diabetes leads to better outcomes for both mom and baby,” Dr. Zyman says.

While some women may need insulin or other prescription medication to manage their blood sugar, Dr. Zyman says about 85% of patients can control their gestational diabetes with diet and lifestyle changes. He recommends women with gestational diabetes:

  • Eliminate or reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including sodas and fruit drinks.

  • Replace simple carbohydrates — such as candy, high-fructose corn syrup, white breads, sweet desserts and sugary cereals — with complex carbohydrates found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains and vegetables.

  • Follow a meal plan of 3 small to moderate-size meals and 2 to 4 snacks to maintain sugar levels.

It is also important that women with gestational diabetes work with their doctor to learn how to check blood sugar — to ensure levels stay in a healthy range — and identify safe physical activities during pregnancy. Regular moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or swimming, lowers blood sugar and decreases a body’s need for insulin.

“Whether a pregnant woman has gestational diabetes or not, it is vital they go to all of their prenatal appointments,” Dr. Zyman says. “Their physician and other care providers can support their health needs and monitor their infant’s growth and development.”

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