How common is gestational diabetes, really?
Well, the number of women diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM) is increasing steadily each year; as many as 10% of all pregnant women will be diagnosed with it. And what’s more, a high proportion of these women will go on to develop Type 2 Diabetes in later life.
We know this information can feel frightening, particularly if you’ve been diagnosed with GDM yourself. However there is some good news: you can get ahead of gestational diabetes and lower your risk by understanding how your diet can directly affect your blood sugar, and making conscious choices to maintain healthy blood glucose levels.
We spoke to Eleanor Strang, Registered Nutritional Therapist and advisor for the Dr. Morton’s medical helpline, to find out more and give you the information you need to know when it comes to gestational diabetes and blood sugar management.
How does diet impact blood sugar levels?
All food provides energy, but it is the type of food we choose that can influence whether blood glucose remains in balance, which is what sustains our energy levels for longer.
Some foods cause blood glucose to fluctuate with peaks and troughs, and this fluctuation is really the concern. When your blood sugar levels peak and plummet it can induce premature hunger pangs, moodiness, irritability and difficulty concentrating. Learning to choose healthy foods that digest slowly (which are rated ‘low glycemic’) will sustain your energy levels for longer, help you better manage your blood glucose if you have diabetes, and certainly reduce your risk of developing it.
What foods negatively impact blood sugar?
Where low glycemic foods can help maintain blood sugar levels, high glycemic foods can have the opposite effect. The typical western diet now has many starchy carbohydrate-heavy foods that digest very quickly and result in a spike of blood glucose. We have become reliant on refined, processed carbohydrates like white bread, cakes and biscuits made from flour and processed to remove much of the grain’s fiber.
These foods digest very quickly so they have a high glycemic score, meaning their carbohydrates are converted into glucose and released into our bloodstream. In contrast, whole-grain starches (especially when eaten with some protein!) take much longer to digest, and won’t lead to a spike in blood sugar levels. This is why low-glycemic foods are considered healthier and can help you better manage blood sugar levels.
What else can cause my blood sugar to spike?
If you have already made changes to your diet and wonder why your blood glucose remains stubbornly high, consider that blood glucose can peak via 3 different routes: 1) Sugar intake, 2) Stress and 3) Stimulants (i.e. caffeine), otherwise known as the 3 ‘S’s.
All three factors can cause an elevation in blood glucose which triggers the release of insulin, a hormone designed to move glucose out of the blood and into the liver for storage or directly into your muscles as a fuel for energy. However, if muscles are unexercised, all that excess glucose gets converted to fat and stored in fat cells.
Now, we know you can’t always mitigate stressors in life that pop up, but you can make dietary choices as it relates to sugar and stimulants to reduce the glycemic load of the food you consume.
What Are The Benefits of a Lower Glycemic Load
Consuming a diet with a lower glycemic load will not only help you maintain your blood sugar levels and reduce your risk of gestational diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, it can also help you feel a lot better overall.
Low glycemic foods have more of a calming effect by boosting the feel-good chemical serotonin, which can lower stress in itself. What’s more, many low-glycemic foods naturally contain super-nutrients like Vitamin E, selenium, zinc, magnesium and antioxidants that combat the aging process and reduce the DNA-damaging effects of free radicals. Lastly, the biochemical environment created by low-glycemic eating actually encourages fat cells to release their contents to be used for energy, which can promote healthy weight loss.
So, are we ready to talk about how you can consume a lower glyemic load, maintain healthy blood sugar levels, and reduce spikes that can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes? Let’s do it.
9 Tips for Reducing Blood Sugar Spikes
- You can help slow your digestion (thus reducing blood sugar spikes) by keeping fibrous vegetables slightly under-cooked, avoid mashing potatoes, or over-cooking green vegetables, which reduces nutrients.
- Swap out refined starches and carbohydrates (white) for unrefined options (brown); wild and whole-grain rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, and rye breads will keep you in the unrefined (and healthier!) zone.
- Reduce the portion size of starches in your evening meal – replacing with extra non-starchy vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, courgettes, peas, and beans.
- We all love a pasta night, but when you go for a pasta base make sure to serve enough vegetables and protein so that the pasta component is less than 50% of the overall volume of the dish. The same with rice and potatoes — reduce your normal portion size and replace with veg!
- Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast; low energy levels during the morning will induce sugar cravings for sweet snacks that will create blood sugar instability for the whole day.
- Include protein with each meal, it slows the digestion of any carbohydrates, so glucose enters the blood stream gradually, sustaining your energy levels for longer. Breakfast should sustain you till lunch, but if it doesn’t, opt for a protein and/or healthy fat-based snack like nuts, seeds or avocados.
- A dash of lemon or vinegar added to a meal can favorably moderate its glycemic load, slowing digestion and therefore stabilizing blood sugar levels.
- Avoid fizzy, sweet drinks on a regular basis; only consume ‘sports drinks’ when a rapid delivery of glucose is necessary post exercise, for recovering muscles after high intensity or endurance sport.
- Moderate alcohol intake and always avoid consuming on an empty stomach; alcohol has a high glycemic rating, metabolizing quickly to produce a peak of glucose.
- Monitor your caffeine intake throughout the day, as caffeine can come from more sources than just your morning coffee. For more on that topic, check out this post.
We always say that information is empowerment; just by understanding how the foods you eat can affect your blood sugar levels can help you take control of a gestational diabetes diagnosis, and perhaps more importantly reduce your risk of developing GDM in the first place. If you have more questions on this topic, please ask away in the comments below!
Dr Morton’s – the medical helpline is a service founded by Doctors offering the unique ability for women to speak with experts in women’s health care as well as very experienced GPs.