Gestational Diabetes | Diet and Symptoms

Gestational Diabetes | Diet and Symptoms

In my clinic, I’m seeing a growing number of cases of gestational diabetes.

It’s definitely on the increase, and most likely due to our high sugar and carbohydrate diet, as well as a lack of protein.

Diabetes is a very common condition where there is too much glucose in the blood.

Insulin (continuously produced in the pancreas) is the hormone responsible for lowering blood glucose levels.

Insulin transports glucose from the blood stream into cells of the body for energy.

Due to our poor diets these days, we are putting ourselves at increased risk of gestational diabetes.

Not only that, but also type 2 diabetes, which can occur once you have had gestational diabetes.

Gestational Diabetes Symptoms

Gestational diabetes usually has no obvious symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they can include:

  • Unusual thirst
  • Excessive urination
  • Tiredness
  • Thrush (yeast infections)

Gestational Diabetes Risk Factors

Below is a list of risk factors for gestational diabetes, and as you will see, not all require you to be overweight or obese:

  • Family history of type 2 diabetes. Having a first-degree relative with type 2 diabetes leads to lifetime risk of 40%. Similarly 25% to 33% of all type 2 diabetics have a family history of the condition
  • Older than 40 years of age
  • Excess body fat, particularly if you’re ‘apple shaped’ with a waist circumference greater than 88 cm
  • Sedentary lifestyle with a diet high in grains and refined carbohydrates (e.g. bread, cereal, pasta)
  • Glucose intolerance, dyslipidaemia, hypertension
  • Prior history of gestational diabetes
  • Diagnosed or undiagnosed polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Conception with assisted reproduction (IVF, IUI, ICSI etc)
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, Pacific Islander, Indian or Chinese, African American, Hispanic American, and Native American descent
  • Low birth weight and/or malnutrition in pregnancy may cause metabolic abnormalities in a foetus that later lead to diabetes
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Gestational Diabetes and Your Pregnancy

During pregnancy, the placenta produces hormones that help the baby grow and develop.

These hormones also decrease the action of the mother’s insulin. This is called insulin resistance.

Because of this insulin resistance, the need for insulin in pregnancy is two or three times higher than normal.

Consequently, during pregnancy, the mother’s body needs to produce higher amounts of insulin to keep her blood glucose levels within the normal range.

If her body is unable to produce more insulin to meet her needs, gestational diabetes develops.

After the baby is born, the mother’s blood glucose levels usually return to normal.

Unfortunately many women think they can eat whatever they like during pregnancy.

This puts a greater load on insulin and insulin sensitivity, resulting in them being at increased risk of gestational diabetes.

A strict diet needs to be adhered to for optimum health of mother and child.

Insulin resistance can also be hereditary, and if there is a family history of diabetes, you have higher chance of having insulin resistance by default.

How Common Is Gestational Diabetes?

Depending on the specific population, abnormal maternal glucose regulation occurs in 3-10% of pregnancies.

Recent studies suggest that the prevalence of diabetes among women of childbearing age is increasing in western countries.

In my personal opinion, the rates are probably up to around 50% these days, given how many people are seen with this disease.

Australia is now one of the most overweight countries on the planet and our diabetes levels have increased exponentially.

This increase is believed to be attributable to:

  • Increased sedentary lifestyles
  • Changes in diet
  • Continued immigration from high-risk populations
  • The epidemic of childhood and adolescent obesity presently evolving

Screening For Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM)

Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) is defined as any degree of glucose intolerance with onset or first recognition during pregnancy.

If untreated, gestational diabetes can lead to fetal macrosomia (big baby), hypoglycaemia, hypocalcaemia, and hyperbilirubinaemia.

In addition, mothers with GDM have increased rates of induction of labour, c-section and chronic hypertension.

To screen for gestational diabetes, a glucose screening test is performed at 24-28 weeks of gestation.

This is followed by a three-hour oral glucose tolerance test if the patient’s plasma glucose concentration at one hour during screening is greater than 7.8 mmol/L.

Normalisation of glucose levels in women with gestational diabetes will reduce the risk of macrosomia (big baby), birth trauma, the need for c-section, and neonatal hypoglycaemia.

If diet modification fails to improve glucose levels, insulin therapy may be needed.

Management Of Gestational Diabetes

Health professionals such as an endocrinologist, nutritionist, naturopath, or diabetes specialist can help you understand what you need to do and will support you in managing your gestational diabetes. Bear in mind though that professionals may all have very different opinions on treatment – it’s common for women to be prescribed high carbohydrate diets despite it being part of the problem.

If you’re in Australia, BellyBelly recommends THESE doctors and specialists to help manage your gestational diabetes.

Some advice may include:

  • Diet – You need to follow a strict, low GI diet. The best diet to follow is a sugar and grain-free diet such as paleo or low carb (read more on Diet Doctor). This way you are cutting out inflammatory foods which spike your blood sugars… and then spike your insulin. Keep an eye on your fruit intake, with a maximum of one serve per day. This helpful chart from Diet Doctor shows which fruits are worse than others. Check out the drinks chart too (as well as the others!). Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. Aim for 8 glasses of water per day and some form of electrolyte (e.g. Endura from Metagenics – not sugary sports drinks) daily.
  • Physical activity – such as walking, yoga or pilates to keep fit. It will help you to prepare for the birth of your baby and will help to control your blood glucose levels. Check with your health care professional before starting a new or particularly strenuous exercise regimen.
  • Monitoring your blood glucose levels – this is essential. It gives a guide as to whether the changes you have made to your lifestyle are effective or whether further treatment is required. A diabetes nurse educator can teach you how and when to measure your blood glucose levels and discuss the recommended blood glucose levels to aim for. Your health care professional or diabetes educator can help you link in with the National Diabetes Services Scheme (NDSS) for cheaper blood glucose strips. Regular contact with your health care practitioner, diabetes educator, or doctor is recommended.
  • Take a good multivitamin, as well as some omega 3 oils, a probiotic and an insulin regulating formulation. This will help you to stay healthy, provide adequate nutrients to the baby, and help prevent gestational diabetes. Get one from a natural health practitioner so you can get quality, practitioner only brands which are more potent than supermarket or chemist brands.
  • Acupuncture is also great for the prevention on gestational diabetes.
  • Insulin injections – may be needed to help keep your glucose level in the normal range. In Australia, blood glucose lowering tablets are generally not used in pregnancy. Insulin is safe to take during pregnancy and does not cross the placenta from the mother to the baby.
  • Education – including information and support from your diabetes educator or doctor, regarding the action of insulin, insulin injection technique, insulin storage, signs and symptoms of hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose levels) and its treatment, as well as safe blood glucose levels for driving.

After The Birth

After giving birth, breastfeeding is encouraged.

Most women will no longer need insulin injections, as gestational diabetes usually disappears.

Blood glucose levels are measured before breakfast and two hours after meals to make sure that these are within the normal range.

An oral glucose tolerance test is done six to eight weeks after the baby is born, to make sure that the mother no longer has diabetes.

Following the birth, it’s important that your baby’s blood glucose levels are measured to make sure that their blood glucose is not too low.

If it is, this can be treated by feeding your baby breastmilk, else formula if necessary.

A baby whose mother had gestational diabetes will not be born with diabetes. However, they may be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Reducing Your Risk Of Type 2 Diabetes

Women who have gestational diabetes have a high chance (almost one in two) of developing type 2 diabetes within 10 to 20 years.

Type 2 diabetes can be prevented, so it is important to take steps to reduce your risk.

You should:

  • Maintain a healthy eating plan (as mentioned above)
  • Maintain a healthy weight for your height
  • Engage in regular physical activity
  • Have a follow-up blood test (oral glucose tolerance test) every year
  • Not smoke. For non-biased advice and to find out the proven, most effective stop smoking method, click here.

What About Subsequent Pregnancies?

Once diagnosed with gestational diabetes, subsequent pregnancies can be affected.

If maternal glucose levels are uncontrolled, the baby can suffer from a range of major health issues.

This includes central nervous system defects, organ failure, cardiac or renal anomalies, asphyxia, respiratory distress, increased blood volume, congestive heart failure, hypoglycaemia, or the baby may be stillborn.

The possible complications of gestational diabetes are not good.

Things to remember:

  • Gestational diabetes is diabetes that occurs during pregnancy
  • When the pregnancy is over, the diabetes usually disappears
  • Women who develop gestational diabetes have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  • A healthy lifestyle with a grain free diet, is important for both mother and baby to reduce their risk of diabetes in the future
  • In future pregnancies, an oral glucose tolerance test will be performed early in the pregnancy to make check that your blood glucose levels are in the normal range. Should the oral glucose tolerance test come back as normal, a repeat test will be done, usually between 22 and 28 weeks gestation.

Prevention is the best way to deal with gestational diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Before you conceive, it’s ideal to start preparing for pregnancy with good foods, good supplements, exercise and a healthy lifestyle.

These healthy eating and lifestyle changes should continue into the pregnancy as well, for optimal health and the best outcomes for mother and baby.

Recommended Reading:

The team from That Sugar Film writes about sugar, diet and Gestational Diabetes. Make sure you watch the film too – it’s brilliant!

Articles posted on BellyBelly which are not written by Doctor Andrew Orr are the opinions of BellyBelly and not necessarily the opinion of Doctor Andrew Orr.

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Dr Andrew Orr CONTRIBUTOR

Doctor Andrew Orr is a Women's Health and Reproductive Specialist, with Masters degrees in both fields. His other qualifications include a BSc and BHSc, and he is a qualified nutritionist and doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Doctor Orr's fertility work with couples has resulted in the births of over 12,500 babies.


8 comments

    1. Lindsey, Doctor Orr is a highly educated doctor (as well as a nutritionist and has other quals). He knows this topic very well. Could you share your qualifications? There are PLENTY of studies published showing that indeed, many cases of GD could be prevented.

      1. Yes I’m genuinely a tad confused also as my Doctor has informed me that diet can be a contributing factor but not always, would that be correct?
        I an under the impression that gestational diabetes can in some cases be heavily reliant on other factors outside of diet and should not be seen as a punishment for the occasional sugar binge most pregnant women indulge in. BUT I could be wrong, more information on prevention would be appreciated.

    2. Agree. Healthy, thin, active women from families with no history of diabetes get Gestational diabetes. This article is crap.

      1. From: https://pilatesnutritionist.com/9-gestational-diabetes-myths/

        Myth #5: I’m Thin. I Can’t Possibly Have Gestational Diabetes!

        Screening for gestational diabetes might seem like another unnecessary test, especially if you’re otherwise healthy, but that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Some studies have shown up to 50% of women with gestational diabetes don’t have any of the classic risk factors, like being overweight prior to becoming pregnant or a family history of diabetes.

        While the screening tests aren’t perfect (see above point), it’s still worth being proactive given all that we know about mildly elevated blood sugar levels and risks to your baby. Even if you’re not interested in the glucose drink, at the very least, using a glucometer to measure your blood sugar levels for a few weeks while you eat your usual diet teaches you a TON about food and your body. And if you’re reading this in early pregnancy, ask to have an A1c added to your blood work.

  1. I know how Lindsey feels. I have just been diagnosed with gestational diabetes and no amount of dietary changes and exercise working for me. Before I was pregnant I was under weight because of adhering to such a strict low carb diet. I was 46 kilos at 165cm. I didn’t have periods so I needed to inject fsh hormone to ovulate to get pregnant. I was basically the last person on earth you’d expect to get gestational diabetes. my Dr was gobsmacked lol. I’m 33 weeks pregnant and extremely fit and trim. I get ‘you’re all baby’ comments regularly. My case is hormonal and it’s my fasting levels that are high, not after meals. Stress plays a major role too. The moment I caught a cold my glucose shot right up. I hardly ate for a day and my liver released glucose to help fight the infection. That’s what was explained to me. I feel devastated at the thought of my baby being pricked every hour for blood glucose monitoring after they’re born. Diet and lifestyle is only a piece of the puzzle…..there’s so much more that so called experts are yet to learn about gd.
    Great if diet and exercise works for you…that’s wonderful.

  2. As with the other comments above I found myself doubting this article as it contradicts information and recommendations I’ve been provided by Diabetes Australia.

    1. Hey Kaylene, BellyBelly is not a replacement for advice from your trusted care providers. If anything, we just want people to research their options and make their own decisions.

      I surveyed women who had or have gestational diabetes. Many of them were unhappy with the information, diets and advice they were given by diabetes educators, hospitals and other experts. They changed their diets and found a huge difference. If you’re happy with the results you have and are making improvements, great! But for those who are not happy or not noticing their condition improving, then here’s something for them to try and look at.

      More experts are coming out every day, speaking about how the way we’ve been told to eat for many years, is a big problem. Unfortunately ingrained policies and information take time to update. Slowly and surely, organisations like the CSIRO and others have started putting out low carb and even paleo focused recipe books and information. I strongly believe it’s just a matter of time before there are admissions that the low fat, high carb diet suggestions were wrong and not based on good science. Just my opinion only.

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