The basics of nutrition for gestational diabetes
Is there a bright side to being diagnosed with gestational diabetes (GDM)? Here at GestationalDiabetesRecipes.com we think there is. We agree that at first it might be a challenge to see the positives, but what if your diagnosis was an opportunity to reevaluate, adjust and even dramatically change your attitude and day-to-day approach to nutrition, food and health?
Article written by Lisa Taylor, (Founder & writer, GestationalDiabetesRecipes) & Natasha Leader (Accredited Practising Dietitian & Credentialled Diabetes Educator and GestationalDiabetesRecipes In-Kitchen Dietitian)
A lot is expected of you once you are diagnosed. Aside from getting your head around reading the nutritional information on packaged products, counting carbs and possibly managing insulin levels, your relationship with GDM starts with a basic understanding of nutrition.
In this factsheet, we’ve broken down the basics of nutrition so that you can get a better understanding of the building blocks and how they fit together.
What is so important about carbs?
Carbs are a great source of confusion when you’ve been told that you have diabetes. The natural reaction is to try and avoid them but this can actually make things worse! Carbohydrate is an energy providing nutrient and our main fuel source as a human. If you cut out carbs or aren’t eating enough during pregnancy or in general, your body will respond by using an alternate fuel source such as fat. In pregnancy this can mean the production of a substance called ketones which are not good for your baby’s brain and usually make you feel a little nauseated and headachy.
What is the role of carbs and how do they work in my body?
When you eat carbohydrates (starches, fruits, most dairy, added sugars) they end up as glucose in your blood and are processed by the hormone insulin, to enable your muscles and brain to access the energy. You know the feeling of being so super hungry sometimes that you can’t think straight? That’s because although your body has ‘energy’ reserves, your brain prefers glucose and we function better with a regular intake of carbs. In diabetes there is a problem with the processing of the carbs because you have a limited amount of useful insulin so if you have too much carb your blood glucose level will spike. What we want to try and achieve is a level of consistent and regular carb intake that you are able to process without causing high blood glucose levels.
Carbs are contained in many of our 5 food groups and simply cutting them out means you won’t consume all the nutrients you need each day. There is also a need for you to ensure adequate carbohydrate energy for the baby.
If I can’t control my BGLs overnight shouldn’t I just cut carbs out after lunchtime?
No that won’t help. If you are waking with higher than recommended glucose levels then this is due to your liver releasing glucose overnight and this isn’t improved by reducing your dietary carbohydrate. If this is the case, further treatment is needed. This may be tablets or insulin depending on your treating centre.
Are all carbs the same?
In gestational diabetes your control will usually be better with a focus on carbs that are digested more slowly so look for carbs which are low GI (glycemic index) as these give your body more time to respond with the insulin needed to process them. Many food products here in Australia are labeled ‘low GI’ but examples to remember are: grain breads, pasta, Basmati rice, apples and citrus fruit, low fat dairy products and legumes.
What is so important about protein?
Protein is the building block of our muscle and also provides the matrix for many important blood products and components in our body. Diet also provides us with the amino acids that we can’t make. When you are pregnant you need a little extra protein to help the baby grow.
What is their role and how do they work in my body?
When eaten, unlike carbs, protein foods do not turn into glucose so there is no strict rule as to how much protein you should eat. Many women find protein plays an important role in helping them feel full and protein appears to also help in preventing some spikes in glucose levels when eaten along with some carbohydrate. So it’s better to eat eggs on toast versus just a piece of toast with a savory spread.
Are there good proteins and bad proteins?
Protein foods often contain fat so the focus should be on lean meats and low fat dairy along with eggs, tofu, legumes and nuts. Like anything, an excessive amount isn’t a great idea as digesting and metabolizing extra protein puts a strain on your kidneys and any extra unnecessary calories will often lead to excessive weight gain. Alternatively, if you don’t eat enough protein you may find you are hungry more easily, that you are missing out on important micronutrients such as iron and zinc and that your baby’s growth may be less than ideal.
What is so important about fat?
Fats have a pretty bad reputation but we do need them. They help with insulating our organs, regulating our body temperature and they provide fat-soluble vitamins.
How do fats work in my body?
Like protein, fat doesn’t turn into glucose but there does seem to be some indirect effect on blood glucose levels with some higher fat foods. Saturated (or animal) fat tends to make it harder for your insulin to work (similar to how your placental hormones do) and so if you have a creamy sauce on a pasta or eat a pie or a croissant, often you will often see a higher glucose level after because the fat has made it more difficult to clear the glucose from the carbohydrate also included in those meal choices.
What are the best fats to eat while I am pregnant?
Eating too much fat when you are pregnant makes it easy to gain excess weight and if you are eating a lot of saturated fat (full cream dairy, fatty meats, commercial snacks such as muffins, chips or biscuits) these can cause excessively high cholesterol that can also accelerate your baby’s growth- especially when you have gestational diabetes.
According to the site thehealthmania.com/ the healthiest fat choices are olive oil and other vegetable oils (except palm), avocado, nuts, oily fish and lean meats.
What is so important about fibre?
Fibre is plant material that isn’t digested by the body. It helps keep your gut healthy and is really important in disease reduction (diabetes, cancer) and bowel management (doing good poos!). This is particularly important in pregnancy because you can suffer more from constipation, so an increase in fibre should help with that. If it doesn’t, speak to your doctor about other options.
The other benefit of fibre is that it is filling. So if you increase the amount of fibre in your diet by increasing your vegetable intake or by changing to a grain bread from a white bread you will usually feel less hungry
For more information read our article on Eating Well.
Disclaimer: We hope you found this information useful. However please note, all our recipes on GestationalDiabetesRecipes.com are written to support a balanced diet during pregnancy with gestational diabetes and beyond. Recipes have been written in consultation with Natasha Leader (our Accredited Practising Dietitian & Credentialled Diabetes Educator) but it’s always best to consult with your own health professional who knows your exact situation and requirements.
Last updated June, 2015.
Thank you so much for your wonderful website! I was diagnosed a week ago whilst in hospital for a different problem. For 3 days I was on insulin, thankfully the doctors decided I was not that high of a risk for regular insulin, however I was very nervous about the prospect of checking my bloods 4 times a day and completely overhauling my diet. Reading your recipes and all the information you have on offer has given me so much hope for a normal, happier pregnancy. I see now how wrong my diet was previous to the diagnosis, and I actually look forward to eating all the delicious wholesome food I will be feeding bubby and myself =) THANKYOU!!!