Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy when blood sugar levels are too high.

It’s a common complication that can have lasting negative health effects for both mom and baby.

Fortunately, you can treat gestational diabetes by making changes to your diet.

This article explains what to eat and avoid with gestational diabetes and provides a 3-day sample gestational diabetes diet.

gestational diabetes diet

What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes occurs when your body’s cells don’t respond to the glucose-lowering hormone insulin as they should, causing higher than normal blood glucose or sugar levels.

It’s one of the most common complications in pregnancy, affecting one in every seven pregnancies globally (1).

The risk factors for gestational diabetes include (2):

In gestational diabetes, glucose can then cross the placenta and cause high blood sugar in the fetus.

In response to this high blood sugar, the fetal pancreas releases insulin in an attempt to maintain normal blood sugar levels.

However, insulin is an anabolic hormone, meaning it encourages the delivery of nutrients into the cells to promote growth. This can cause the fetus to grow faster and larger than average.

Babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes are also more likely to develop chronic diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome later in life (3).

Women with gestational diabetes are more likely to develop preeclampsia and need a Cesarean delivery (C-section).

And while gestational diabetes usually goes away after delivery, many women go on to develop type 2 diabetes (2).

Gestational diabetes usually doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms, but it may lead to problems such as tiredness, excessive thirst, and physical weakness, similar to other types of diabetes.

You may need medications like insulin to manage gestational diabetes, but you can also treat the condition by making changes to your diet.

Gestational diabetes diet

A gestational diabetes diet focuses on achieving and maintaining healthy blood sugar levels to support a safe pregnancy and a healthy baby (4).

Of the three macronutrients — carbs, fats, and protein — carbs have the greatest impact on your blood sugar.

As such, you can support healthy blood sugar levels by decreasing the amount you consume and choosing slow-digesting carbs over their fast-digesting counterparts (5).

A ketogenic — or keto — diet is not recommended for gestational diabetes or during pregnancy in general.

Beyond carbs, you should fill up on healthy proteins and fats as part of an overall healthy diet.

You shouldn’t try to lose weight during your pregnancy but instead, aim to gain a healthy amount of weight (4).

Here are the foods to eat and avoid with gestational diabetes:

Food to eat

Here is a list of foods to eat with gestational diabetes to support healthy blood sugars:

  • Fruits: all fresh, frozen, and water-packaged varieties
  • Vegetables: all fresh, frozen, and canned varieties
  • Whole grains: barley, brown rice, buckwheat, oatmeal, popcorn, and whole-grain bread and pasta
  • Legumes: beans, peas, and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, Brazil nuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts, etc.
  • Dairy: milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt
  • Poultry: eggs, and minimally processed chicken and turkey
  • Meats: lean cuts of beef and pork that contain the words “loin” or “round”
  • Seafood: all fresh and frozen varieties
  • Oils: canola or extra-virgin olive oil
  • Beverages: coffee, tea, water, and other low-calorie or calorie-free beverages

Stick with healthy cooking methods such as steaming, baking, grilling, braising, or boiling.

Also, as part of a healthy pregnancy diet, limit your caffeine to 200–300 mg per day, equivalent to 2–3, 8-ounce cups of coffee (6, 7).

Foods to limit

You should limit foods rich in refined carbs, added sugars, and saturated fats as these foods can worsen insulin resistance and elevate blood sugar (8, 9).

Foods to limit include:

  • processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, and sausage
  • fried foods, such as fish, chicken strips, fries, cheese curds, etc.
  • sugary beverages, such as sports drinks, regular soda, and sweetened coffee or teas
  • condiments with added sugars, such as barbeque sauce, ketchup, honey mustard, and some light or fat-free dressings
  • sugary breakfast cereals
  • boxed meals or side dishes
  • bakery products, such as bagels, cookies, pastries, pies, muffins, and rolls
  • other refined carbs, such as candy, ice cream, white rice, bread, pasta, and granola or granola bars

You don’t need to completely avoid these foods but it’s best to limit them as much as possible while monitoring your portions.

3-day gestational diabetes diet sample menu

Here’s a 3-day sample gestational diabetes diet sample menu:

Day 1

  • Breakfast: fried egg and mashed avocado on whole-grain toast
  • Lunch: grilled lemon chicken salad
  • Snack: cottage cheese with sliced peaches
  • Dinner: pork tenderloin, roasted, sweet potato wedges, and a side salad

Day 2 (vegan)

  • Breakfast: oatmeal topped with berries and almond slivers
  • Lunch: quinoa black bean salad
  • Snack: hummus with veggies for dipping and an apple
  • Dinner: vegan stir fry with edamame and peanuts

Day 3

  • Breakfast: overnight oats topped with berries and chia seeds
  • Lunch: seared shrimp with whole wheat pasta and veggies
  • Snack: Greek yogurt and walnut halves
  • Dinner: baked salmon, quinoa, and asparagus spears

Gestational diabetes supplements

In addition to dietary changes, taking vitamin D and magnesium supplements may help you better manage gestational diabetes.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a hormone-like vitamin.

While it’s most commonly known for its role in supporting bone health, vitamin D also plays an important role in supporting healthy blood sugars through its effects on insulin.

In fact, some but not all studies have shown that vitamin D supplementation significantly improves insulin sensitivity and decreases blood sugars in people with type 2 diabetes (10, 11).

These results have also been demonstrated in those with gestational diabetes.

A review of 10 studies found that vitamin D supplementation significantly reduced blood glucose and decreased insulin resistance in those with gestational diabetes (12).

Some low-quality research also suggests that supplementation may reduce newborn complications and the need for additional medical care (13).

In either case, vitamin D supplementation is a relatively inexpensive way to ensure you have adequate levels while also potentially improving insulin resistance to support healthy blood sugars.

The vitamin D dose used in the studies varies but 1,000–2,000 IU (25–50 mcg) is a good place to start.

You can find vitamin D supplements online.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that plays an important role in supporting healthy blood sugar levels.

Indeed, insufficient magnesium levels have been linked with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (14).

Similar to vitamin D, supplementing with magnesium can help restore insulin sensitivity and support healthy blood sugars.

One review of four studies found that magnesium supplementation significantly improved insulin sensitivity and decreased blood sugar in those with gestational diabetes (15).

Most studies have shown improvements in insulin sensitivity with 250–300 mg of magnesium citrate per day.

Find magnesium citrate online.

The bottom line

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that can develop when your blood sugar levels become too high during pregnancy.

The condition can increase your risk for problems during and after pregnancy. It can also cause complications for your baby.

Fortunately, you can achieve and maintain healthy blood sugar levels to support a safe pregnancy and a healthy baby by following a healthy diet.

You should emphasize slow-digesting carbs such as whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with healthy sources of proteins and fats.

At the same time, you should limit foods rich in refined grains, added sugars, and saturated fats as they can worsen insulin resistance and increase blood sugar.

Along with diet, supplementing with vitamin D and magnesium are cost-effective ways to potentially restore insulin sensitivity and help you better manage gestational diabetes.


Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN
Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN

Gavin Van De Walle holds a master's degree in human nutrition and bioenergetics. He is a registered dietitian who aims to arm the public with evidence-based nutrition recommendations so they can make their own educated and informed health decisions.