9 Tips for Successfully Managing Blood Sugar Levels with Gestational Diabetes
The balance of blood sugar levels in our bodies is like a finely tuned orchestra, with insulin as the conductor. This vital hormone regulates how much glucose (sugar) goes into your cells for energy.
If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes during your pregnancy, the task of understanding and monitoring your blood glucose numbers can feel pretty overwhelming. We get it! But fear not–there are actually plenty of things you can do to stay on top of managing your blood sugar levels.
These nine tips will help you learn what to do, what to eat, what to avoid, and how to stay calm and collected as you prepare for the arrival of your baby, even while managing GDM.
(Remember, gestational diabetes treatment always begins with recommendations from your doctor and other healthcare professionals, like dieticians and nutritionists with particular knowledge about GDM.)
Get to Know the Glycemic Index (GI)
What is the GI?
The glycemic index is a rating of different foods based on how much and how quickly they raise blood sugar.
What does this mean when you have gestational diabetes? Since GDM makes it harder to manage blood sugar levels, it is a good, general rule of thumb to favor low-GI foods, while eschewing high-GI foods. This will help your body stabilize glucose levels more easily.
Here is a quick, practical list of the GI of some common foods:
High GI Foods
- Soda and fruit juice
- Baked goods like cake and doughnuts
- Starches like bread, boiled potatoes, and white rice
- High-sugar fruits like watermelon
Mid-range GI Foods
- Whole-grain breads
- Brown rice and other grains like barley and corn
- High-fiber fruits like apples and berries
- Sweet potatoes or yams
- Beans and legumes
Low GI Foods
- Non-starchy vegetables
The GI: A Closer Look
Let’s also look at the glycemic index with a little more nuance: the GI is based on individual foods. That means, it does not take into account how combinations of food work together to affect blood glucose levels.
For example, if you eat a piece of candy–a high GI food–by itself, your blood glucose will rise quickly. But, if you pair the candy with a piece of cheese–a low GI food–your blood sugar levels will rise more slowly than if you ate the candy in isolation.
What does this mean for gestational diabetes? When in doubt, stick to lower-GI foods. But also: learning how different macronutrients react in combination with one another can offer you more dietary options. It's not just about cutting down sugars, but understanding how different foods impact your glucose levels.
- Create a Gestational Diabetes Dietary Plan
Adjusting your diet is the primary way you can take control of your blood sugar levels.
As with any type of diabetes, GDM alters how your body manages glucose through the insulin response. That means, for the last several months of your pregnancy, you’ll need to pay special attention to the food you eat, and in what combinations, in order to keep your blood sugar levels as stable as possible.
This can involve a bit of a learning curve.
First, you’ll need to learn which foods are less prone to spiking blood sugar. But also, because gestational diabetes is hormone-driven, what spiked you at breakfast might be totally fine for lunch. Similarly, the meal that provided stable levels on week 31 might cause problems for you by week 33.
This is all to say: gestational diabetes is a bit of a moving target, which can make it extra frustrating to deal with!
Eat Smaller Meals, More Frequently
A steady influx of glucose from low-GI foods over the course of the day will help your body stay in balance, while going long periods without eating, or consuming large amounts of carb-heavy foods in one sitting, can make it harder for your body to keep your blood glucose levels in check.
If you can, reach out to a dietician or nutritionist with specific knowledge about gestational diabetes.
It’s helpful to understand how carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber interact with one another to provide energy to your body. This knowledge can help you make more informed choices, even as your placenta grows, and GDM becomes more difficult to control through diet alone.
The foods you eat affect your blood sugar levels in a big way. A little planning and knowledge will go a long way in helping you stay on top of “diet controlled” gestational diabetes.
Eat More Fiber
Fiber is a naturally occurring carbohydrate found in a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and beans. It is an essential nutrient in your diabetes-management journey.
Since the body is not able to absorb and break down fiber, it does not cause a blood sugar spike in the same way that other carbohydrates do.
There are two types of fiber:
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a kind of gel in your stomach, slowing the breakdown of carbohydrates and helping you feel fuller, which can help with portion control. This type of fiber plays a crucial role in keeping blood sugar levels in check and managing cholesterol. Foods rich in soluble fiber include apples, bananas, oats, peas, black beans, lima beans, Brussels sprouts, citrus, and avocados.
Insoluble fiber does not absorb water, and instead remains intact as it passes through the digestive tract. This type of fiber supports insulin sensitivity, and helps keep you regular in the bathroom department, which is especially important when you are eating a gestational diabetes diet. Sources of insoluble fiber include whole wheat flour, bran, nuts, seeds, as well as the skins of various fruits and vegetables.
Reaching for high-fiber foods as a bedtime snack may help blood sugar control during sleep, as fiber slows down sugar absorption, preventing sudden spikes.
NON-FOOD RELATED TIPS
Drink More Water
When it comes to gestational diabetes-friendly beverages, water is number one on the list. Staying properly hydrated is important for your health in general, and even more so when you are pregnant.
While there’s no direct connection between water intake and blood sugar levels, consuming lots of water daily helps your kidneys flush out extra sugar your body has accumulated in the form of urine. When you're well-hydrated, your kidneys can perform their job more effectively.
Trying to make drinking more water a habit?
- Create a routine around regular intervals so you don't forget. You can even set a timer if you need to.
- Add slices of citrus (lemon, lime), fresh herbs (mint, verbena), or cucumbers to your glass, to keep things more interesting.
- Carry a reusable water bottle with you, so that you can continue sipping wherever you are.
Just keep in mind: not all hydration is created equal! Skip sweet or sugary drinks, which will raise your blood glucose levels even further, instead of helping to regulate them.
Good sleep is so important when you’re pregnant, but especially when you have GDM. After all, your body needs adequate sleep to properly regulate its insulin sensitivity and glycemic control.
Of course, life sometimes gets in the way of this–I see you, mom with 2 under 2–but do what you can to carve out some extra zzz’s. If you can, head to bed early a few nights per week, or ask your partner to give you an extra hour or two to sleep in or nap.
Practicing healthy sleep habits is daily self-care that can improve how you feel, in addition to your numbers the next morning.
Stay Active Every Day
Regular exercise plays a vital role in managing your blood sugar levels. Studies show that regular workouts encourage muscles to use more glucose for energy and contraction; this process lowers high blood sugar levels, minimizing the chance of harmful spikes.
Steer clear of high-impact sports, but you can definitely continue your favorite low-impact activities. Consider hiking, dancing, swimming, and yoga, to name a few.
Additionally, activities like weight lifting can increase insulin sensitivity, which helps reduce excess sugars in your body.
Your health care team may recommend starting with gentle exercises if you're new to an active lifestyle, and gradually build up intensity as your fitness improves. But remember: safety first! Always check with your doctor before beginning any new workout regimen.
If you’re feeling tired, nauseous, or just want to take it slowly, remember that walking is also a great option! Try running your errands on foot with some music, a podcast, or an audiobook to keep you company.
Frequent movement throughout the day is also beneficial - think of these as "exercise snacks." Short bouts of exercises include things like taking stairs instead of elevators, or parking further from store entrances to walk more. These little changes can have big impacts on regulating your blood glucose level in the long run.
Again, make sure you speak with your healthcare provider before introducing any new, physical activity into your routine.
Add magnesium and chromium
Foods high in sugars tend to lack these minerals.
Magnesium is essential for almost every part of your body, and your baby's. It helps keep your nerves and muscles healthy, and your blood pressure in check. Plus, it helps your baby grow strong teeth and bones.
Magnesium has been shown to help manage blood sugar levels.
Some sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, spinach, black beans, edamame, peanut butter, brown rice, bananas, salmon, and avocado.
Chromium helps your body store and break down fats, carbs, and proteins. It also aids your body's insulin hormone keep your blood sugar levels in check. Plus, it helps your baby's body build proteins as it grows.
Some sources of chromium include beef, turkey breast, apples, green beans, bananas, whole-wheat bread, tomatoes, and peanut butter.
Creating well-balanced meals using these nutrients is a great starting point on your journey to successful gestational diabetes management.
There is no doubt that pregnancy can introduce a lot of new stressors to your life. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones like cortisol that raise blood glucose levels. So when life gets chaotic, it can wreak havoc on your diabetes control.
The good news? You've got the power to bring down those sugar spikes with some tried-and-true relaxation techniques.
Mindfulness meditation is one option. This doesn’t take a lot of time, or fancy chants or spiritual elements; even 10 minutes a day can make a difference.
You can practice mindfulness while washing the dishes, walking to your desk at work, brushing your teeth, or just relaxing after a tough day. Pay attention to your breathing, calm your racing thoughts, and stay in the now. Don’t judge your thoughts or emotions: acknowledge them, and then watch them float away, like a leaf down a stream.
Yoga is another popular choice. Many yoga studios have special classes for pregnant women, or you can research techniques and do it yourself at home. Yoga combines elements of meditation with physical poses and positions that help stretch, strengthen, and relax your body all at the same time.
You likely have your own favorite stress-reduction techniques. Maybe you always feel better when you listen to a certain piece of music, or can let go of negative thoughts when you write in your journal. Watch a few funny cat videos online or read a light-hearted book.
Any of these activities can provide benefits for people with gestational diabetes: a regular habit of de-stressing will help keep your glucose readings more stable throughout the day. These are also great habits to get into to manage stress after your baby arrives.
Managing blood sugar levels can feel like a balancing act, but it's one you're capable of mastering. By understanding the relationship between diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits, you've taken important strides towards achieving stable glucose levels.
Munching on high-fiber foods, doing a quick workout, or drinking water can help lower your blood sugar swiftly.
While following your physician’s treatment plan, taking all prescribed medication, and regularly testing your blood sugar levels are essential, these nine tips will help you feel more in control of your blood glucose management when you have gestational diabetes.
Where Can I Get More Support?
GD Kitchen! I created this resource to solve a problem that I wish someone had already solved before my pregnancy. And I've teamed up with OB Rachael Sullivan, DO and nutritionist Jamie Askey, RN, so that you will have all the resources, and all the confidence, I wish I’d had.
If you need immediate help finding recipes that are designed for women on a GD nutrition plan, try our six free gestational diabetes recipes here. I personally spent hours in the kitchen developing each one. They’re great for the entire family.
Our other resources:
- GESTATIONAL DIABETES BASICS 101
- GLUCOSE METER TIPS & TRICKS + BLOOD GLUCOSE DIARIES
- THE RECIPE MEMBERSHIP
- THE FULL MEMBERSHIP