Gestational Diabetes Diet: What You Should Eat and What to Avoid

If you’re diagnosed with gestational diabetes, what you eat will be more important than ever. Learn what foods you should and shouldn’t eat for a healthy pregnancy.

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by
Rebecca Washuta
— Signos
MS, CNS, LDN
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Reviewed by

Rebecca Washuta
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
May 20, 2024
October 5, 2023
— Updated:
October 6, 2023

Table of Contents

Pregnancy can be both an exciting and daunting time. During these 40 weeks, your body makes incredible changes to accommodate your growing baby. Your blood volume doubles, you grow an entirely new organ (the placenta), and your glucose metabolism shifts to provide more energy for the baby. This natural transformation often goes off without a hitch, but sometimes there can be complications. 

One common condition resulting from pregnancy is gestational diabetes. Approximately 8% of mothers are diagnosed with gestational diabetes. The risk increases to almost 16% in mothers over 40.1 Gestational diabetes occurs when your pancreas cannot make sufficient insulin, which can result in high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes for the mom and other serious health concerns for the baby.2

What Causes Gestational Diabetes?

During pregnancy, your body alters how it handles glucose so your baby has the fuel to support its rapid development. To effectively route glucose to your little one, your body produces hormones like progesterone, cortisol, and prolactin, making your cells more insulin-resistant.3 

This decrease in maternal insulin sensitivity preserves glucose molecules and transfers them through the placenta to the baby. As the mother’s cells become more insulin-resistant, the pancreas is required to produce more insulin. If the pancreas can’t keep up with the increased demand for insulin, gestational diabetes develops. Fortunately, when hormones subside after giving birth, most women’s insulin and blood sugar levels return to normal. 

How To Treat Gestational Diabetes With a Healthy Diet and Nutrition

In addition to pregnancy-related hormones, your diet plays a role in your body’s glucose metabolism and insulin production. Eating a balanced diet high in fiber, high-quality protein, and healthy fat can support a healthy pregnancy and prevent health complications for you and your baby. 

Gestational Diabetes Food List 

Ideally, you want to aim for foods that help balance your blood sugar and insulin levels. Here are some foods to focus on:

Protein 

Protein won’t spike your blood sugar and helps you feel full and satisfied by decreasing hunger hormones like ghrelin.

Your protein needs significantly increase during the second and third trimesters, so try incorporating these healthy options into all your meals and snacks:

  • Pasture-raised/Free range eggs
  • Pasture-raised/Free-range meats (chicken, turkey, beef, etc.)
  • Small wild-caught fish (salmon, cod, sardines, anchovies) 2-3x per week
  • Organic dairy (cottage cheese, yogurt, etc.)
  • Organic tofu
  • Organic dry-roasted nuts and seeds

Non-starchy vegetables 

Incorporating a wide array of colorful vegetables into your diet while pregnant is important. Rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, they can balance your blood sugar and optimize your health.

Green veggies rich in iron help support your baby’s development

  • Spinach
  • Asparagus
  • Peas

Red veggies high in lycopene help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the placenta4

  • Tomatoes
  • Red bell peppers
  • Red cabbage

Fiber-rich veggies help to minimize blood sugar spikes

  • Artichokes
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Collard greens

Healthy fats 

Healthy fats are an essential part of any diet but are even more important when you’re a pregnant woman. Omega-3 fatty acids support proper brain development in babies and can reduce the risk of preterm labor for mothers.5 

Here are good sources of healthy fats:

  • Small wild-caught fish (salmon, cod, sardines, anchovies) 2-3x per week
  • Chia seeds, Flax seeds, Hemp seeds
  • Seaweed
  • Walnuts
  • Edamame
  • Olive oil

Complex carbs 

Carbohydrates are a great energy source (and you need a lot of energy when pregnant!). With gestational diabetes, it’s important to prioritize complex carbs, as they are digested and absorbed more slowly and will have less effect on your blood sugar. 

Here are some examples of complex carbs:

Grains

  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Quinoa
  • Steel cut or Rolled oats
  • Brown rice

Legumes

  • Black beans
  • Lentils
  • Navy beans
  • Kidney beans

Fruit

  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Pear
  • Avocado

Vegetables

  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
brussel-sprouts-on-wooden-table

Foods to Avoid with Gestational Diabetes 

Although you’re likely to experience cravings during pregnancy, you still want to be mindful of your eating. If you’ve been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, this is even more crucial. 

Here are the foods you should limit or avoid altogether to better manage your blood sugar:

Sweets

Foods high in added sugar will send your blood glucose soaring. If you have these treats, don’t eat them on an empty stomach, which can further raise your blood sugar.

  • Cookies
  • Donuts
  • Brownies
  • Candy
  • Ice cream

Simple carbs

These types of carbohydrates are broken down quickly in your body, which spikes your blood sugar and can leave you feeling tired and hungry again soon after:

  • White rice
  • White bread
  • Traditional pasta
  • Most packaged food (crackers, chips, pretzels, etc.)

Hidden sugars 

Processed foods contain artificial sweeteners and hidden sugars, so carefully read food labels. Be sure to check the grams of sugar and the serving size. Here are some of the top foods with hidden sugars:

  • Yogurt
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Cereals
  • Granola and granola bars
  • Condiments and sauces
  • Fruit juice

5 Tips for Managing Gestational Diabetes 

Gestational diabetes can be an intimidating diagnosis; however, there are lifestyle changes you can make to manage it more easily. 

Here are our top tips for keeping your blood sugar in check:

Eat Healthy

Focus on the fiber-rich foods mentioned above and limit sugar and simple carbs.

Exercise

Physical activity (particularly after meals) can lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity.

Manage Stress

When stressed, our bodies release hormones that can cause high blood sugar levels. Try to manage your stress through meditation, yoga, or breathwork.

Take Your Meds

If you’ve been prescribed medication like metformin or insulin, take it as directed.

Talk to Your Doctor

Work closely with your healthcare provider to determine the best options for you.

doctor-in-white-lab-coat-talking-while-facing-the-laptop

Gestational Diabetes Meal Plan

Below is an example of a typical healthy meal plan for gestational diabetes:

Breakfast: Limit carbohydrates to 15 to 20 grams for this day's first meal. Ideas for breakfast include:

  • Unsweetened Greek yogurt topped with raspberries and chia seeds
  • Two slices of whole grain bread with an unsaturated low-fat spread, topped with eggs
  • A boiled or poached egg with a slice of toast

Lunch: Remember that your plate should contain half of non-starchy vegetables, a quarter of lean protein, and a quarter of carbs. Some lunch ideas include:

  • Kale Caesar salad with roasted salmon and whole grain croutons
  • Pasta salad loaded with vegetables
  • Homemade soup with a wholegrain roll
  • Any of these low-glycemic lunch ideas

Dinner

  • Stir fry with lean chicken
  • Slow-cooked bean chili
  • Roasted fish with cauliflower rice
  • Roasted chicken with grilled asparagus and quinoa
  • For busy weeknights, check out these ideas for low-glycemic dinner recipes.

Snacks

  • Dry roasted nuts
  • Cottage cheese topped with berries 
  • Apple with peanut butter
  • Dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
  • Veggies with guacamole

When You Should Reach Out to a Professional

Gestational diabetes typically develops in the second trimester, and expectant mothers are tested between the twenty-fourth and twenty-eighth weeks of pregnancy.6 If you’ve had gestational diabetes during previous pregnancies or have a family history, your healthcare team may test you sooner. If test results indicate gestational diabetes, talk to your doctor and registered dietitian about how to best manage your blood sugar.

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition with Signos’ Expert Advice.

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References

  1. QuickStats: Percentage of Mothers with Gestational Diabetes, by Maternal Age — National Vital Statistics System, United States, 2016 and 2021. (2023). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 72(1), 16. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7201a4
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2022, April 9). Gestational diabetes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gestational-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20355339#risk-factors
  3. Soma-Pillay, P., Nelson-Piercy, C., Tolppanen, H., & Mebazaa, A. (2016). Physiological changes in pregnancy. Cardiovascular Journal of Africa, 27(2), 89–94. https://doi.org/10.5830/CVJA-2016-021
  4. Sun, S., Cao, C., Li, J., Meng, Q., Cheng, B., Shi, B., & Shan, A. (2021). Lycopene modulates placental health and fetal development under High‐Fat diet during pregnancy of rats. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 65(14), 2001148. https://doi.org/10.1002/mnfr.202001148
  5. Coletta, J. M., Bell, S. J., & Roman, A. S. (2010). Omega-3 Fatty acids and pregnancy. Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 3(4), 163–171.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, July 14). Gestational diabetes and pregnancy. https://www.cdc.gov/pregnancy/diabetes-gestational.html

About the author

Rebecca Washuta is a licensed dietitian with degrees in neuroscience and nutrition and helped individuals develop long-term health habits and achieve various wellness goals.

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