Gestational diabetes while vegan. What is the risk for gestational diabetes on a plant-based diet? Here are the answers to some common questions about how a plant-based pregnancy affects this condition.
Now that we’ve both been through two predominantly plant-based pregnancies, we love answering some of the most frequently asked questions around pregnancy-related conditions.
We’ve been asked a lot about gestational diabetes and whether a high carbohydrate plant-based diet affects one’s risk or management of the condition.
Unfortunately, much of the confusion around this topic has been perpetuated by the low-carb community. So, let’s clear it up.
What is Gestational Diabetes?
Gestational diabetes (GD) is usually diagnosed during weeks 24-28 of the second trimester in women who didn’t have diabetes prior to becoming pregnant.
It affects approximately 10% of pregnancies worldwide and can lead to an increased risk for pregnancy complications like high blood pressure and macrosomia, where babies gain too much weight for their gestational age.
Large babies increase the risk of complication during birth and put children at a future risk of health problems like obesity and diabetes.
While gestational diabetes usually resolves after birth, about half of moms will go on to develop type 2 diabetes.
For many women, GD is unavoidable.
What Causes Gestational Diabetes?
Pregnancy is a naturally insulin-resistant state for the body to be in.
The body’s ability to respond to insulin and uptake glucose is inhibited in order to divert nutrients to the developing baby instead of mom.
Unfortunately for some women, insulin resistance is simply increased too much, resulting in dangerously high blood sugar levels.
Risk factors for developing GD include age, ethnicity, weight, and a family history of diabetes.
How to Reduce Your Risk for Gestational Diabetes
While GD is very common, there are things you can do to reduce your risk for developing it in your pregnancy.
One of these is to eat a plant-based diet.
We understand that, depending on what you’ve heard, this may seem counterintuitive given the fact that plant foods are naturally high in carbohydrates – otherwise known as glucose – which raises blood sugar levels.
But here’s the thing.
Research actually shows that a high-carb diet reduces the risk for GD and results in better glucose management for those women who have the condition.
What the Research Says
One randomized controlled trial – the gold standard in research – assigned women with GD to a high-carb diet or a low-carb diet with the same amount of calories for 7 weeks.
The high-carb group ended up reducing their fasting blood glucose levels – how high your blood sugar is after sleeping for a night or not eating for at least 8 hours – and free fatty acids… while the low-carb dieters saw increased glucose levels!
Additionally, the high-carb group had reduced markers of inflammation in their fatty tissue compared to the low-carb group.
How do you explain this?
Well, researchers think that the increased fat intake of low-carb diets – specifically saturated fat found in animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy – increases insulin resistance by impairing the functioning of insulin receptors and increasing inflammation throughout the body.
Secondly, low-carb diets are naturally lower in fiber.
Fiber is only found in carbohydrate-rich plant foods. Animal products offer no fiber.
So in other words, by cutting out carbs from your diet, you cut out fiber as well.
Research shows that fiber makes an immense impact on blood sugar management and GD risk.
One study found that every 10 grams of fiber per day increase in one’s diet resulted in a 26% reduced risk of GD.
What’s even more interesting in that the same study found increases of just 5 grams of fiber from grains or fruit specifically – two often unfairly demonized food groups – GD risk was reduced by 23 and 26%, respectively.
So basically, everything you ever heard about high-carb diets causing GD or cutting out carbs to treat GD is total BS.
In fact, there’s no universally agreed upon diet to treat GD whatsoever.
Large systematic reviews have determined that any dietary intervention is better than none, but haven’t really fleshed out the specifics around what they might look like.
What We Do Know
Despite the uncertainty around standard dietary practices for GD prevention and management, we know that fiber is good.
So rather than restricting carbs, the focus should be on selecting the best sources of carbohydrates – those that are HIGH in fiber.
This includes all the foods found in a whole foods plant-based diet:
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
And what foods should we minimize?
Low-fiber, high-glycemic foods and those containing large amounts of saturated fat.
This includes refined grains (e.g., white breads and pastas), added sugar (e.g., sugar added to desserts and many packaged foods, NOT fruit naturally found in fruits), and animal products (e.g., milk, cheese, bacon, eggs, butter).
Gestational Diabetes and Animal Products
Additionally, despite recommendations for pregnancy women to load up on protein and red meat, high intake of animal protein has also been associated with a higher risk for GD.
One study out of Harvard found that women with the highest intake of animal protein pre-pregnancy had a 49% increase in GD risk, while women with the highest intake of vegetable protein had a 31% reduced risk.
Another Harvard study showed a 61% increased risk for every one serving of red meat consumed daily, and a 64% increased risk for every serving of processed meat.
That being said, we’re not here to shame anyone.
We advocate for a predominantly plant-based diet. That means, the more plants the better.
If that means following a vegan or vegetarian eating pattern for you, that’s awesome.
If it means simply reducing your meat and animal product intake, that’s great too.
Every bit of plant-based eating is beneficial!
So to sum it all up, to reduce your risk of gestational diabetes and help better manage the condition if you do get it:
Don’t skimp on the high-quality carbs. Simply focus on eating as many fiber-rich plant foods as possible.
While it’s still possible to get gestational diabetes while vegan, research shows that a plant-based diet can reduce your risk. A plant-based pregnancy that incorporates high fiber carb-rich foods can help prevent and manage this condition.
For more info on prenatal nutrition, be sure to check out the Plant Based Juniors Predominantly Plant-Based Pregnancy Guide.
It’s 175 pages of evidence-based nutrition information, healthy lifestyle tips, prenatal exercise advice… plus 50 delicious plant-based recipes!
Chime In: Have you ever experienced gestational diabetes? What was the experience like for you?
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I am vegan and I had GD with my first pregnancy, and expect to develop it again later in my current pregnancy. I had trouble managing my numbers if I ate a meal of higher carb, but fiber-rich foods. For example, I couldn’t eat a bowl of vegan chili or lentil soup as a meal. And I basically ate no fruit the entire time I had GD because it spiked my numbers. It was a pretty miserable experience and I felt like I ended up eating a lot of processed “meats” just to get high levels of protein, without getting the high levels of carbs that would come from a source like beans. I’d love to hear any feedback you may have, so maybe I could do things differently if I develop GD again. The doctors only give you a few high numbers before they want to put you on insulin, so if these studies show that the blood sugar reduced over time (not sure if that was the case?), that wouldn’t really work in treating GD I think?
I could have written this myself! Vegan and diagnosed with GD – was able to manage with diet but drove myself insane counting carbs and did end up introducing eggs and some dairy back in, as it seemed to be the only way to keep the numbers under control. Newly pregnant again and although I’m hoping not to have to deal with GD again, I’d love to manage it a different way this time if I need to.
Summer, Bee, me three! Field Roast and Tofurkey slices are now purchased on the double at grocery trips. And I succumbed and added a little zero fat greek yogurt to increase protein too, (not to mention Garden for Life protein + greens powder, which I highly recommend). Nevertheless the struggle is real and I hope with all my might I’m GD free once this bb comes out of me!
I can attest to everything in this article!
I had GD in my first pregnancy without any risk factors contributing to me getting it. I was eating meat and fish back then, but found ways to manage my diet to avoid going on insulin or medication. However my doctor continued to demonize carbs and fruit. It completely resolved after pregnancy.
3 years later, I am pregnant again and tested positive for GD at 14 weeks. Bloodwork prior to pregnancy didn’t show any issues with my blood sugar, so I’m still holding out hope that it will resolve after I deliver. The main difference with this pregnancy is that I’m a vegetarian. My glucose numbers are so low (~92 avg) even an hour after eating meals that they would beat a fasting glucose threshold! Beans, seeds and avocado lower my levels the best, so I’m incorporating some combination of them in every meal.
I’m feeling confident that even if my GD doesn’t resolve after delivery that I’ll never have to go on medication or insulin due to a plant-based diet! Thank you for writing such an informative article! For anyone struggling with GD considering a plant-based diet, don’t let the “low carb” advice from doctors deter you!
Love this post. I had GD with my last pregnancy and found that a plant-based diet was very effective at managing it without the need for added medications. I did follow the carb recommendations of my endocrinologist so it’s interesting to me that it could possibly be managed without doing so. Thanks for posting this! I remember feeling really confused and in the dark when I was diagnosed.
I’ve had GD 3 times now and I’ve been a nearly life long vegetarian. This pregnancy I’ve had no dairy due to my second not tolerating it during BF and I then couldn’t tolerate after. So basically I have eggs sometimes now and that’s about it. It is so frustrating because my levels are all over the place. I’m on two medications and one drops my levels to dangerous lows if I’m not on top of eating. Then they spike. I’m so frustrated. Breakfast is the hardest meal for me because I only want carb type foods. But other meals I have done well. I also notice if I have a hearty salad as 1/2 my plate and different veggies added my levels don’t tend to spike. It’s just hard with two kids who eat mostly vegetarian but who still like typical kid foods. When mamma is hangry it’s hard to take the time to eat the best foods because they need time for preparation. I’m just so over GD. I feel awful and I’m just constantly frustrated… or hungry. I need to buckle down and pre make foods so when I’m starving or my levels drop I can grab something quickly.
I had gd in my first pregnancy diagnosed at 28 weeks and was not a vegetarian then. I could manage with diet and exercise and had to glyburide for controlling my fasting levels which felt impossible without medication. 3 years down the line I went complete vegan and that reduce my temporarily escalated a1c from 6.1 to 5.6 and I got pregnant in a month. I was elated and was really hoping this vegan WFPB diet could help prevent Gd. But I again got it at 28 weeks. I am 32 weeks now and have introduce back meat during lunch as my numbers are harder to control this time. I am taking insulin night time to amange fasting levels and a mild insulin doasage at lunch (started 2 days back ) to get lunch under control. I introduce back meat on my dietician’s advice that meat protein is better at slowing down the rise of blood sugar than plant based protein. Me and my family was down with COVID for a week and that week my numbers went off the charts driving my dietician to almost put me on insulin and me to desperation to the point that I decided to try her advice of introducing meat back for the rest of the pregnancy. Hate to admit, but despite all the benefits I have seen from a whole food plant based vegan diet, In this area of short blood sugar management the Animal protein does seem to do a better job. I have been able to manage my readings better after introducing the meat back. Frustarated but feel out of options. Does anyone have a sismilar experience. It almost feels like there is no way to manage blood sugar while eating essential carbs ( Tj manage baby growth) and be on a fully vegan diet.
Jeanine Patterson says
I got a great tip from a friend with Type 1 that helped me manage my GD while being a vegetarian. Eat whatever your protein is first, wait 10-15 minutes before eating any carbs. She said it had to do with the protein hitting your blood stream first instead of the carbs and it can help keep your blood sugar from spiking or something like that. Perhaps the dieticians on here can confirm if that is accurate. Regardless, it worked for me! Otherwise I would have had to go on insulin or start eating meat. I had GD with my first pregnancy as well but ate meat back then and didn’t have trouble managing with diet, so I was happy to have found this work around without adding meat! Good luck momma.
I had diabetes before getting pregnant. But reversed it with plant based diet. My blood sugars did go up and I was put on metformin and Lantus at night. I think the main culprit was bread and potatoes. As long as I stay away from those im fine. But its nearly impossible to go out to eat unless all I eat is salads. There is the temptation of veggie burgers, fries etc. My blood sugar spike very high with those. Highest it has been 168 after 1 hour of eating veggie burger and sweet potato fries. After 3 hrs it was 133. If I eat a salad with garbanzo beans its around 90 2 hours later. I can have lots of berries. They dont spike sugars. Have to be careful with grapes. But yeah the trick is to stick to all natural foods which is hard. Dr furman has a lot of good recipes. My high risk dr said that my blood sugar would still go up even if all I ate was carrots and celery. So I imagine my Lantus will still go up but maybe I can avoid short acting insulin after meals. We have to be very strict. Im currently on 24 units of Lantus at bedtime. Im 26 weeks and 4 days. My baby is so strong. I want to keep her healthy and avoid getting pre-eclampsia and I think this is the best way.