Prenatal Exercise & Diet for Gestational Diabetes
During pregnancy, there are many things to look out for when it comes to our health and the health of our baby. One of the more commonly known pregnancy complaints that you will likely be tested for, is Gestational Diabetes (or for the scientific term, Gestational Diabetes Mellitus, GDM).
If you have been diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes or know someone who has, you would have heard a lot of conflicting information about the risk exercising with Gestational Diabetes. In this article, we will discuss what gestational diabetes is, what to look out for, and how using exercise (as well as diet) can help to manage this condition in pregnancy.
WHAT IS GESTATIONAL DIABETES (GDM)?
Gestational diabetes mellitus is high blood sugar that starts during pregnancy. When someone has diabetes, their body can’t maintain healthy blood glucose levels, or blood sugar levels. Glucose is a form of sugar which is the main source of energy for our bodies. Women with an unhealthy level of glucose in the blood can lead to long term and short term health complications.
IS GESTATIONAL DIABETES SERIOUS?
According to Diabetes Australia, between 12% and 14% of pregnant women will develop gestational diabetes, and this usually occurs around the 24th to 28th week of pregnancy.
Some women will have symptoms, but it’s also important to note that many will have no symptoms at all, which is why the Glucose Tolerance Test is common practice during this period of pregnancy. Our ideal blood sugar levels during pregnancy are around 4.0-5.5 mmol/L when fasting, or around 7.0 after a meal. But pregnant women with Gestational Diabetes struggle to manage this blood sugar level naturally!
When someone has trouble controlling their blood sugar levels, the risk of developing other problems increases, including high blood pressure, kidney and bladder problems, just to name a few. Mental health can also be affected.
For most women who have Gestational Diabetes, they will no longer have diabetes after the baby is born. Though some do go on to continue to have high blood sugar levels after birth, and are at risk of going on to develop type 2 diabetes.
WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS OF GESTATIONAL DIABETES?
Women with the following characteristics tend to have a higher risk of developing Gestational Diabetes:
- Are over the age of 40
- Are above the healthy weight range
- Have had previously high blood sugar levels or GDM in previously pregnancies
- Previously given birth to a large baby, or have gained weight too rapidly early in pregnancy
- Certain cultural backgrounds
While the mother’s blood glucose levels usually return to normal after birth, there is a higher risk of her developing type 2 diabetes in the future. The baby may also be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. For some women, being tested for type 2 diabetes every 1-3 years is necessary. It really does vary woman to woman!
IF YOU’VE GESTATIONAL DIABETES, CAN YOU EXERCISE?
You may be wondering if there are any risks of exercise for gestational diabetes…
Well, the risks of exercise in pregnancy are actually similar for those with gestational diabetes than a normal pregnant woman.
We, as health professionals, want to encourage all pregnant women to take on regular exercise with moderate intensity, unless indicated otherwise by your doctor. If you are struggling with nausea or fatigue, then you can break up into smaller bouts of 10 mins 3-4 times a day.
WHY & HOW TO EXERCISE SAFELY TO MANAGE & TREAT GESTATIONAL DIABETES?
Here’s why exercise is key to managing Gestational Diabetes: Your insulin sensitivity will be raised for between 24-48 hours after exercising. So this means your blood sugar levels will be reduced or positively affected for this period of time.
Regular exercising is vital for pregnant women and can help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance. Women who exercise regularly during pregnancy also maintain more positive attitudes about themselves, their baby and upcoming labour and delivery.
Other advantages of using exercise to manage and treat Gestational Diabetes include:
- Mother’s weight gain reduced (excessive weight gain is a risk factor for developing gestational diabetes)
- Reduced risk of developing gestational diabetes, especially when in conjunction with a healthy diet
- Reduced risk of postnatal depression type symptoms
- Deposit and retaining less fat
- Generally feeling better physically, mentally and emotionally
- Shorter & less complicated labours
- More rapidly recovery than women who stop or don’t exercise
Just like a regular pregnant woman, if you have previously been inactive, then it is important to start slowly and build up to the daily recommended amount.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that a pregnant woman exercises at the same volume as a non-pregnant woman of similar age, though the intensity is lower or moderate intensity in pregnancy.
Choose an exercise that you can do daily and maintain, such as walking, swimming, yoga or pilates. If you enjoy something, you’re more likely to stick with it! Check out our free prenatal exercise guide written and approved by health professionals to learn more!
We highly recommend pregnant women to exercise daily and visit a dietician or nutritionist are highly recommended in pregnancy if you have pre-existing diabetes or the risk factors for developing gestational diabetes. This can help you to better understand how to maintain ideal blood sugar levels during pregnancy, as well as provide specific advice on weight loss in pregnancy. It is always advised to seek the guidance of your medical caregiver when starting an exercise program in pregnancy.
CAN YOU GET RID OF GESTATIONAL DIABETES WHILE PREGNANT?
For most women, Gestational diabetes can be managed effectively:
- Following a healthy eating plan
- Exercising regularly
- Monitoring blood glucose levels
Though around 10-20% of women, according to Diabetes Australia, will go on to need insulin to help to manage diabetes but usually won’t be needed when your baby is born.
WHAT FOOD YOU CAN EAT WITH GESTATIONAL DIABETES?
If you are diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes, or even have greater risk of developing gestational diabetes, it is highly recommended to see an accredited Dietitian to develop a tailored gestational diabetes meal plan. Modifying your diet can help in keeping your blood sugar level normal. We have asked Steph Lowe, LCHF Nutritionist since 2011 from thenaturalnutritionist.com.au for some easy dietary recommendations to help manage blood sugar better in pregnancy.
1. ADD IN SOME PROTEIN
Typical mums on the go would have gluten free fruit toast with butter for breakfast, which is pretty low in protein. Add some proteins like nuts, seeds or nut butters to your smoothies that are usually composed of carbohydrates from fruits like berries and bananas. Examples include adding a tablespoon of almond butter and a tablespoon of chia seeds. You may even add a plant based protein powder on your smoothie to make sure the protein is present.
2. EGGS ARE THE PERFECT COMBINATION OF PROTEIN AND FAT
Eggs are perfect fertile food. You can try making an omelet with some veggies, avocado and a piece of sourdough. If you’re looking for plant based alternatives, then that could be last night’s leftovers that contain lentils, legumes, tofu or about 100g of tempeh.
3. FOUR CUPS OF VEGETABLE AND SPREAD THROUGHOUT 3 MEALS
Most people get the bulk of their vegetable intake at dinner. When it comes to portioning, a half plate of vegetables are recommended with a small portion of protein and healthy fat.
You can also stick to having 4 cups of vegetables a day which you can work out by spreading them across your 3 main meals. One cup in a smoothie, one cup in your omelet and two cups of roasted vegetables at night would be a really basic example that’s also easy to achieve.
4. TWEAKING YOUR CARB PORTIONS
Two cups of pasta with tomato sauce on top is best avoided. Instead, try turning the plate portions upside down. Have a small portion of pasta (half to one cup), then look at how you can get more vegetables and more protein in the mix. This time the carbs are not the main feature.
5. TWO SNACKS A DAY AND EATING EVERY 3 HOURS
There’s a greater chance of maintaining a stable blood sugar when you eat frequently. Waiting until you’re hungry can make you eat the wrong types of food that easily spike your blood sugar level. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.
One good tip is to have smoothies as your snack substitutes so that you can still get your nutrients without being overly full. We definitely need more carbohydrates during pregnancy, and I recommend you get them from whole foods. But most often, we eat too many carbs that we’re simply too low in protein and fat. These 5 diet guidelines can help you tweak your meal plan in order to make you healthier. Remember that these subtle changes can make a big difference in how you can manage your blood sugar during pregnancy.
Outside of this, here are some nutrition tips can help with gestational diabetes treatment:
- Eat small amounts and often, to manage blood sugar levels, appetite, and healthy weight maintenance.
- Reduce your sugar intake.
- Choose lower glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates such as beans, lentils, cooked and cooled potatoes, basmati rice.
- Include a small amount of protein with each meal and some healthy fats (such as avocado, nuts and seeds) to help with satiety or fullness.
- Eat a varied diet rich in healthy fats, protein and slowly digesting carbohydrates, such as those mentioned above.
- Get regular Gestational Diabetes monitoring with your doctor and dietitian.
Whilst Gestational Diabetes is a relatively common condition, there is much that we can do to help manage symptoms and reduce further risks in pregnancy. Continuing to be physically active, following a gestational diabetes meal plan and monitoring gestational diabetes through blood sugar levels will go a long way to a happy & healthy pregnancy and baby – even if you do end up with Gestational Diabetes.
To support mums & first-time mums throughout pregnancy, download this FREE Prenatal Exercise Pregnancy Guide to learn how to safely exercise during pregnancy.
In the guide, we share the importance of exercising throughout pregnancy and the different types of physical and breathing exercise you can do at home or the gym. Get your copy!
If you want to learn more tips on pregnancy and motherhood-related concerns, check out our official Instagram account @lennyroseactive.