Medically Approved

6 things to do if you’re diagnosed with gestational diabetes

Pregnant woman exercising indoors

High blood sugar during pregnancy is common. It’s also treatable. You just need the right combination of diet, exercise and possibly medication.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

You’ve passed through the morning sickness phase, you’re planning your nursery decor, and you’ve started to whittle down your list of baby names. Then you find out you have gestational diabetes. Suddenly your excitement turns to worry.

Gestational diabetes affects between 2% and 10% of pregnancies in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition occurs when hormones from the placenta block sugar, or glucose, from entering your cells as easily as it should. As a result, the sugar builds up in your bloodstream. And that can lead to other problems.

According to the Mayo Clinic, gestational diabetes can increase your risk of high blood pressure, or a related (and more serious) condition called preeclampsia. And if left untreated, it could increase your odds of needing a cesarean section.

The Mayo Clinic also notes that gestational diabetes can be risky for your child. Among other things, it can put the baby at risk of low blood sugar, breathing problems, high birthweight or a preterm birth.

But don’t let that scare you too much. If you’re reading this, you’re already taking steps to protect your own health and your baby’s. And there’s a lot you can do to reduce your risk.

“Most of the time, gestational diabetes can be managed with lifestyle modifications, such as watching what you eat and getting some cardiovascular exercise,” says Kfier Kuba, MD. He’s an attending ob-gyn and leads the Diabetes in Pregnancy Program at Montefiore Health System in New York City.

If lifestyle changes alone don’t do the trick, you have other options. “Some women need a little bit of extra help in the form of medication to bring their blood sugar down to a normal level,” says Dr. Kuba.

If you need help paying for that medication, the Optum Perks mobile app allows you to search for discount coupons. But medication is only one part of the solution. Here are 6 things you can do to help control gestational diabetes right now.

Schedule snacks in between meals

Dangerous blood sugar spikes are more likely to happen when you go for long periods of time between meals. So one way to prevent a spike is to eat regularly.

Check with your doctor about building a specific meal plan. Odds are, you’ll be told to eat 3 small to medium meals and 2 to 4 snacks each day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And, of course, what you eat matters, too. “We recommend reducing your intake of high-carb foods like bread, rice and pasta,” says Dr. Kuba. In their place, plan to eat foods that are high in fiber, protein and unsaturated fats.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, these are some of the foods you should focus on:

  • Lean protein (eggs, chicken, fish, low-fat dairy)
  • Nonstarchy vegetables (broccoli, onions, peppers, spinach, kale)
  • Healthy fats (olive oil, avocado)
  • Whole grains (oats, barley, bulgur, quinoa, farro)
  • Lentils and beans (kidney, pinto, chickpeas)
  • Nuts and nut butters (almonds, walnuts, peanut butter)

If you need some inspiration, check out these 21 snacks for people with diabetes.

Find new sources of sweetness

For some people, cutting sugar is easy. For others, it can feel almost impossible. So if you’re in the habit of eating sweet and starchy foods, now’s the time to start looking for healthier options.

“This can help you maintain an optimal blood sugar level,” says Erin Palinski-Wade. She’s a registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and the author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet.

The first thing you want to ditch are sweetened beverages, such as sugary sodas. Even fruit juice can spike your blood sugar. If you do need something sweet, diet soda or other beverages that use artificial sweeteners can satisfy the craving without spiking your blood sugar, according to the American Diabetes Association.

That said, not all artificial sweeteners are deemed safe during pregnancy. Cyclamate and saccharine (Sweet’N Low), for instance, are not recommended by the American Pregnancy Association. Here are the sweeteners that the group deems safe during pregnancy:

  • Acesulfame potassium (Sunett)
  • Aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet)
  • Rebaudioside A (Stevia)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

Another healthy alternative to traditional sweet food: fruit. The fiber in whole apples, oranges and berries helps them digest slowly. Compared to juices made from these fruits, eating them whole has a far smaller impact on your blood sugar.

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Schedule a daily half hour of power

Exercise during pregnancy has been shown to decrease the odds of gestational diabetes.

A review of studies published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth found that women who worked out in the months leading up to the birth were 42% less likely to develop the condition. The study also found that exercise reduced the odds of a cesarean section by 12%.

But what if you’ve already been diagnosed? A similar review of studies, this one from La Trobe University in Australia, found that women with gestational diabetes who exercised had lower fasting blood sugar levels. They also had smaller blood sugar spikes after eating.

To see the effect yourself, Dr. Kuba recommends aiming for 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise each day. “Walking briskly, especially after meals, can reduce your blood sugar,” he explains.

But he cautions that it’s best to check with your doctor before starting a new workout, and you should avoid exercises you haven’t tried before. Pregnancy isn’t the time to start pushing your physical abilities, Dr. Kuba says.

Monitor your blood sugar

A blood glucose monitor with test strips will help you identify foods or activities that lead to spikes in blood sugar, says Dr. Kuba.

Most insurance plans will cover the expense. Or if you have a health savings account (HSA) or a flexible savings account (FSA), you can use the funds to purchase a monitor. (Check out the iHealth Smart Wireless Gluco-Monitoring System and iHealth test strips, both available on the Optum Store.)

Once you’ve purchased the device, talk to your doctor about a testing schedule that makes sense. “Some women will be told to test their blood sugar multiple times a day, and others just once a day,” Dr. Kuba says. “You and your doctor will decide when you should test.”

Related reading: 4 techy ways to make life with diabetes easier.

Ask your doctor about medication

In many cases, gestational diabetes can be managed by eating right and getting enough exercise. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may still have high blood sugar.

“In this case, the first-line medication is insulin,” Dr. Kuba says.

The first thing to know is that insulin does not cross the placenta. “Patients ask me if insulin is safe for the baby, and I reassure them that it is safe and it is the best medication for them to use when medication is needed,” Dr. Kuba says. “The baby makes its own insulin.”

(Optum’s coupon search tool can help you find discounts on prescription insulin.)

There are oral medications, too. But they are not recommended as a first-line treatment for gestational diabetes, says Dr. Kuba. “Some of the oral medications can potentially reduce blood sugar, but if you look at the outcomes, these don’t help as much as insulin,” he says.

Cut yourself some slack

Pregnancy can be stressful. And while stress doesn’t cause gestational diabetes, it can make it worse. “High levels of stress can elevate blood sugar levels,” says Palinski-Wade. And that’s exactly what you don’t want right now.

Exercising is a great way to reduce stress. So find a kind you like, whether it’s walking or swimming or something else, and build it into your daily routine. (Remember, 30 minutes each day.)

In addition, make sure you find time to relax and decompress. This is an aspect of self-care that’s often overlooked in the frenzy of planning for the arrival of a baby. Make time to soak in the tub, listen to music, meditate or walk on your favorite nature trails.

With these strategies, you’ll significantly reduce the risks associated with gestational diabetes. And to reduce the risk of spending a fortune on medication, download the Optum Perks discount card. By showing it to the pharmacist at checkout, you may be able to get a lower price on your prescriptions.


Additional sources
Gestational diabetes overview:
The Mayo Clinic
Rate of gestational diabetes: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Managing gestational diabetes: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Understanding carbohydrates: The American Diabetes Association
Foods for gestational diabetes: Cleveland Clinic
Artificial sweeteners and pregnancy: American Pregnancy Association
Exercise reduces rates of gestational diabetes: BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth (2018). “The effect of exercise during pregnancy on gestational diabetes mellitus in normal-weight women: a systematic review and meta-analysis”
Exercise reduces blood sugar spikes in women with gestational diabetes: Journal of Physiotherapy (2016). “Exercise improves glycaemic control in women diagnosed with gestational diabetes mellitus: a systematic review”