Eating well is a great way to stay healthy during pregnancy. If you have gestational diabetes, choosing the right food is especially important. You may be able to control gestational diabetes by eating well and exercising regularly. This means you won’t need to take medication.
Sugar (glucose) is one of your body’s main sources of energy. Your body uses a hormone called insulin to control the amount of sugar in your blood and to turn it into fuel. But pregnancy hormones reduce the effect of insulin, so your body has to make more to be able to use any sugar in your blood.
If you have gestational diabetes, your body isn’t producing enough insulin. As a result, your blood sugar levels can get very high and that can lead to problems for your baby.
It’s possible to keep your blood sugar levels under control by changing what you eat and combining your new healthy diet with regular exercise. In fact, up to 90 per cent of women with gestational diabetes control it this way.
How will I have to change my diet?
If you were overweight before you got pregnant, your doctor or midwife will advise you to monitor your calorie intake. They’ll also suggest that you take at least 30 minutes’ moderate exercise, such as walking or swimming, every day.
You’ll need to be careful that you don’t have sharp rises and falls in your blood sugar levels. Your doctor should help you with this. Ask her to arrange an appointment with a dietitian who can work out a special diet for you. The special diet will guide you on:
- which foods you should and shouldn’t eat
- how much you should be eating
- how often you should eat
Although the idea of a special diet may sound daunting, it’s not so hard once you get the hang of it. The principles of the diabetic diet are good ones for everyone to follow. Try to think of this as a chance to get yourself and your family into healthier eating habits.
I’ve heard about good carbs and bad carbs. What are they?
There are two types of carbohydrate that give you energy when you eat them. They are:
- complex carbohydrates, or starch
- simple carbohydrates, or sugars
Sometimes, complex carbohydrates are described as good carbs, and simple carbohydrates as bad. But this doesn’t give the whole picture.
Simple carbohydrates include added sugars, such as table sugar and honey, as well as natural sugars, found in fruit and milk. Eating plenty of fruit and some dairy products is a healthy thing to do. So when people call simple sugars bad carbs, they are talking about added sugars.
If you have gestational diabetes and you have too many foods and drinks high in added sugars, it can upset your blood glucose control. It’s not healthy for people without diabetes, either.
At least half the energy in our diets should come from carbohydrate, mostly as starchy carbohydrates. Starchy carbohydrates are:
Try to have wholegrain varieties where possible. They provide extra fibre, which is important for your digestion.
If you have gestational diabetes, the types of food and drink you’ll be advised to have are no different from the type of healthy diet everyone should have. Your food should be high in complex carbohydrates and low in saturated fat.
You should not have added sugars, although you won’t have to cut them out completely.
It’s best if you eat fruit, milk and yoghurts as part of a mixed meal. Your body will then absorb the simple sugars in the juice or dairy food more slowly. That’s because the sugars are mixed with other food elements, such as fibre and protein.
What are low GI foods and why are they important?
The glycaemic index (GI) of a food is a measure of how quickly sugar (glucose) is released into your bloodstream after you’ve eaten it. Low-GI foods that are rich in fibre are an important part of a healthy diet.
Choosing foods with a low GI will help you to manage your gestational diabetes. That’s because low-GI foods take longer for your body to digest. Glucose is released more slowly into your bloodstream.
Some examples of food with a low GI:
- pasta made with durum wheat flour
- apples, oranges, pears, peaches
- beans and lentils
Some examples of food with a high GI:
- baked potato
- white rice
Choosing more foods with a low GI may be able to help you to control your blood sugar levels. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have any high-GI foods. Mixing high-GI foods with low-GI foods can lower the rate at which glucose is released into your bloodstream. Examples of foods that combine well in this way are:
- peanut butter on toast
- baked potato with baked beans
Your doctor or dietitian can give you more information on choosing a healthy diet.
How can I improve my diet?
Eat a good breakfast
Eating a good breakfast can help regulate your blood sugar levels throughout the morning. Try to have a low-GI breakfast. Porridge is a good choice because it releases energy slowly and evenly. Or you could choose wholegrain cereals and breads with a small portion of a high-protein food such as a boiled egg or a low-fat yoghurt.
High GI foods such as sugar-coated cereals or white toast and jam can quickly raise your blood sugar levels.
Eat a variety of foods during the day
Across your day, try to have plenty of variety so that your food is interesting and appealing. Sometimes it helps to use colour to help you achieve this. If the food on your plate is made up of foods that are only brown or yellow, try adding in some red pepper and green salad or some raspberries and grapes, depending on whether or not it is a savoury meal.
Eat high-fibre foods
Eat plenty of high-fibre foods. These foods tend to have a low GI. This may help to keep your blood sugar levels from going too high after meals. High-fibre foods include:
- fresh fruit and vegetables
- wholegrain breads and cereals
- dried peas, beans and pulses
Eat your five a day
Make sure you have at least five portions of fruits and vegetables each day:
- add fruit to your breakfast cereals or porridge
- add a salad to your lunchtime sandwich
- choose two vegetables with your main meal
- snack on fruit rather than biscuits or cakes
Cut down on saturated fats
- use unsaturated fats, such as olive oil or sunflower oils for cooking and salad dressings
- replace butter with a spread high in polyunsaturated fats
- grill foods instead of frying
- snack on nuts and seeds, rich in unsaturated fats, instead of milk chocolate
- trim fat from meats
Don’t skip meals
Try to eat balanced meals at regular intervals each day and have the same amount of food at each one. Eat three small to moderate-sized meals every day. Using a smaller dinner plate can help you keep an eye on your portion sizes. You can also eat between two and four snacks, including an after-dinner snack to help keep your blood sugar levels steady.
This will help your blood sugar to stay more stable.
Cut down on sugary foods and drinks
Try to cut down, or give up, sweets, fizzy drinks, fruit juice, and most desserts. These foods contain simple sugars that are easy for your body to absorb. They can quickly raise your blood sugar.
You can dilute fruit juices with water. Use about one quarter juice to three quarters water, and drink once a day. The rest of the time, opt for water and other drinks without sugar, such as sugar-free squashes and flavoured drinks.
What if I can’t control gestational diabetes by diet alone?
Remember that exercise helps too, so try to keep active. Every time you exercise it helps to lower your blood sugar levels.
Fast walking, swimming, cycling, or even going up and down the stairs are all good ways of increasing your heart rate. Before starting any new exercise, check what you’re planning to do with your doctor or midwife. The key is to avoid being still for long periods of time, such as sitting at a desk or watching TV for hours on end.
If diet and exercise aren’t enough to keep you well, you may need to take medication to control your blood sugar levels or to inject insulin.
Your doctor will teach you how to inject yourself. This may sound a bit scary, but by keeping your blood sugar levels under control you’ll be doing your best to keep yourself and your baby well.
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