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During pregnancy, you're already adjusting to multiple changes with your body, and a diagnosis of gestational diabetes can feel overwhelming. Take heart that not only will you be able to sustain a healthy pregnancy but you'll also be able to do it without following a strict meal plan. Keep reading to learn what causes gestational diabetes and how to manage it with our easy gestational diabetes meal plan guide. The goal is to implement sustainable habits that feel manageable and stress-free but still help keep your blood sugars in a healthy range during this exciting time.
What Is Gestational Diabetes?
Gestational diabetes occurs in pregnant women, even if they didn't have diabetes before pregnancy. It's routine for doctors to test for it between weeks 24 and 28 of pregnancy. Any woman can get gestational diabetes; however, you may be at increased risk if you are overweight, have had gestational diabetes before, or have relatives with diabetes. And, having gestational diabetes during pregnancy doesn't necessarily mean a diagnosis of diabetes after giving birth.
Like other forms of diabetes, gestational diabetes impacts how your cells use glucose. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in your bloodstream. Insulin is then released from the pancreas to take glucose to your cells for energy. Hormonal shifts during pregnancy can cause insulin resistance, meaning glucose levels stay high in your blood instead of being taken to your cells for energy. The risks of gestational diabetes can include complications for mom and baby, such as a larger baby, which can increase the risk of needing a cesarean section. Uncontrolled blood sugar can also lead to high blood pressure in the mother.
The good news is that you can keep your blood sugar levels in check through proper nutrition, physical activity and working closely with your doctor to coordinate prenatal care.
Gestational Diabetes Symptoms
Some women may notice gestational diabetes symptoms before being tested by their doctor. Some of the typical symptoms include increased thirst and urination, blurred vision, and fatigue (which can be masked by normal pregnancy fatigue). However, most women will experience no symptoms at all, which is why it's important to go to all of your prenatal appointments.
How to Prevent Gestational Diabetes
There are a few things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing gestational diabetes, but it's important to remember that if you do get diagnosed, it's not your fault. If you are overweight or obese, you can lower your risk of gestational diabetes by making dietary changes that keep your blood sugar levels normal and help you gain less weight throughout pregnancy (you still want to gain weight when you're pregnant). But for women who are at a healthy weight before pregnancy (BMI 18.5-24.9), dietary changes haven't been shown to prevent gestational diabetes. Exercising from the start of pregnancy may lower your risk of gestational diabetes.
Gestational Diabetes Diet Guidelines
There's no one-size-fits-all gestational diabetes meal plan. The goal is to incorporate foods that support healthy blood sugar levels. Follow these general guidelines and then customize your meals based on the foods you like and the sample gestational diabetes meal plan provided below. Schedule a meeting with a registered dietitian to determine your exact carbohydrate needs and to get an individualized gestational diabetes meal plan.
Choose complex carbohydrates
Carbohydrates raise blood sugar more than fat and protein, so it's important to pay attention to the type and amount of carbohydrates you're eating. Aim for about 30-45 grams of carbs per meal and 15-30 grams per snack, but check with your dietitian for your specific needs. Choose complex carbohydrates most of the time—these have more fiber, which slows digestion and prevents blood sugar from spiking. Beans, whole grains and vegetables are complex carbs.
Follow the "plate method" for easy portion control
The plate method lets you eyeball appropriate portions without having to actually pull out a measuring cup or count calories, which makes plating out a balanced, healthy meal simple and easy. Aim to make half your plate nonstarchy vegetables, a quarter of your plate lean protein, and a quarter of your plate whole grains at each meal. It's important to eat a consistent amount of carbohydrates at each meal.
Pair carbohydrates with protein and healthy fats
Pairing carbohydrates with protein and healthy fats prevents spikes in blood sugar. It also keeps you full, since protein and fat are digested more slowly than carbohydrates. For example, instead of just having an apple for a snack, pair it with peanut butter, which provides protein and healthy fat.
Eat at regular intervals throughout the day
Eat three meals and two or three snacks each day. Do not skip meals. It deprives you and your baby of nutrients and could cause your blood sugar to drop too low.
What Can I Eat If I Have Gestational Diabetes?
The answer: lots of delicious foods! Nothing is off limits per se if you have gestational diabetes, but some foods will better help control blood sugar than others. Because refined grains like white pasta, white rice, white bread, crackers and tortillas will spike blood sugar quicker than their whole-grain counterparts, choose the whole-grain options more often. Same goes for simple carbohydrates like sugary desserts and juice—go for fruit-forward desserts that contain less added sugar and more fiber, and choose whole pieces of fruit instead of juice. That said, if you're really craving that cookie or brownie, just stick to one serving and plan to move a little afterward to help your body use up the sugar. And, in line with general healthy eating guidelines, avoid trans fats, opt for lean meat or plant-based proteins, and keep sodium in check by limiting processed foods.
Read More: What to Eat (and Avoid) When You're Pregnant
Choose more often
- 100% whole grains
- Nonstarchy vegetables
- Some starchy vegetables (like potatoes, corn and peas)
- Fruit (1-2 servings per day)
- Unsweetened yogurt
- Avocado oil
- Olive oil
- Chia seeds
Choose less often
- White bread/pasta
- Refined grains
- Highly processed foods
- Fast food
- Fried foods
- Baked goods
Recipes for Gestational Diabetes
Here's what to aim for with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. These easy recipe ideas make eating with gestational diabetes simple and delicious.
After the long night, your blood sugar levels will be low. Your body will need a healthy breakfast to fuel both you and the baby. Aim for 30-45 grams of carbs.
Recipes to try:
- Old-Fashioned Oatmeal topped with raspberries
- Everything Bagel Avocado Toast topped with 1 cooked egg
- Blueberry Almond Chia Pudding
- Spinach & Egg Sweet Potato Toast
Aim for 15-30 grams of carbs.
Recipes to try:
These easy-to-make lunches can be made ahead of time to take on the go. Aim for 30-45 grams of carbs.
Recipes to try:
- Veggie & Hummus Sandwich
- Salmon Salad
- Tuscan White Bean Soup
- Mason Jar Power Salad with Chickpeas & Tuna
Aim for 15-30 grams of carbs.
Recipes to try:
- Lime & Parmesan Popcorn
- 1 cup veggie of choice + ½ cup hummus
- 1 medium apple + 3 Tbsp. peanut butter
Use the principles of the "plate method" to build a balanced dinner that includes healthy carbohydrates, lean protein and plenty of veggies. Aim for 30-45 grams of carbs.
Recipes to try:
- Zucchini Noodles with Quick Turkey Bolognese with a chunk of whole-wheat baguette to sop up any leftover sauce
- Roast Chicken with Parmesan-Herb Sauce
- Very Green Lentil Soup
- Salmon Tacos with Pineapple Salsa
Evening Snack or Dessert
If you're still hungry after dinner or are craving a sweet treat, go for something that has around 15 grams of carbs.
Recipes to Try:
- 1-oz. square dark chocolate
- 4 pieces Edible Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Balls
- 1 small pear, sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon
3-Day Gestational Diabetes Sample Meal Plan
This easy gestational diabetes meal plan shows you what a healthy day of eating looks like. Follow along with this plan as is, or use it as a template to create your own healthy gestational diabetes meal plan.
Breakfast: Old-Fashioned Oatmeal
AM Snack: 1/3 cup raw almonds + ½ cup mixed berries
Lunch: Salmon Salad
PM Snack: Lime & Parmesan Popcorn
Breakfast: Florentine Hash Skillet
AM Snack: 1 small apple + 2 Tbsp. almond butter
PM Snack: 1 cup vegetable of choice + ½ cup hummus
Dinner: Very Green Lentil Soup
Breakfast: ½ cup plain Greek yogurt + ½ cup blueberries + 1 Tbsp. chia seeds
AM Snack: Frozen Chocolate-Banana Bites
Lunch: Veggie & Hummus Sandwich
PM Snack: Guacamole-Stuffed Egg
The Bottom Line
Managing gestational diabetes through your diet doesn't have to be daunting. Use the gestational diabetes diet guidelines outlined here to create your own gestational diabetes meal plan based on your tastes and preferences. The main goal is to implement sustainable habits that feel manageable and stress-free during this exciting time.
Healthy Pregnancy Recipes
See All of Our Healthy Diabetes Meal Plan
Healthy Pregnancy Sample Meal Plan
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What to Eat When You're Pregnant: Second Trimester
What to Eat When You're Pregnant: Third Trimester