According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gestational diabetes develops in approximately 2–10% of pregnancies in the United States each year.
Gestational diabetes can negatively affect both the woman and fetus. Possible effects include:
- an increase in the woman’s blood pressure
- a higher risk of preeclampsia
- an increased risk of the woman developing type 2 diabetes later in life
- high birth weight of the baby
- premature birth
- the baby having low blood sugar levels at birth
Keep reading for tips on how to help prevent gestational diabetes. We also cover risk factors and early signs and symptoms.
Although gestational diabetes is not always avoidable, women can take some steps to help reduce their chances of developing it.
Go into pregnancy at a healthy weight
Regular exercise is important for a healthy pregnancy.
A woman looking to conceive should make lifestyle choices that can help her reach and maintain a healthy weight ahead of getting pregnant.
The authors of a 2018 study looked at 10 years of data on gestational diabetes and concluded that being overweight was a significant risk factor.
Other research confirms that having a BMI higher than 25 increases a woman’s likelihood of developing gestational diabetes. However, the researchers also noted that making dietary changes reduced the risk.
People looking to lose weight can take steps to modify their diet, such as:
- measuring out smaller portion sizes
- avoiding packaged food and “junk food”
- replacing candy with fruit
- eating more lean protein, such as fish and tofu, to stay fuller for longer
- increasing fiber intake by eating plenty of vegetables and whole grains
- replacing juices, dairy-laden coffee drinks, and sodas with herbal tea, black coffee, or sparkling water with lemon or lime slices
Exercise is a vital part of maintaining a healthy weight. Both before and during pregnancy, exercise can help prevent gestational diabetes. Exercise helps the body become more sensitive to the insulin that the pancreas creates, which helps regulate blood sugar levels.
It is a good idea to start getting active before becoming pregnant, even if it means making simple, long-term lifestyle changes. For anyone with a sedentary lifestyle, steps that may help include:
- walking or cycling to work
- parking farther away from the destination and walking the rest of the way
- taking the stairs
- doing active leisure activities, such as hiking, gardening, or playing with children outdoors
- trying yoga, ideally a class specifically for pregnant women or beginners
- doing low-impact exercise, such as swimming
- joining a running club to stay motivated
Anyone looking to prevent gestational diabetes should try to do about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on 4–5 days of the week. Moderate-intensity exercise should cause a person to break a sweat.
Good cardio options include stationary biking, walking, swimming, and using an elliptical machine.
However, pregnant women should speak to a doctor about any new exercise regimens and discuss which types are safe to do at each stage of pregnancy.
Eat well during pregnancy
Eating whole grains and nonstarchy vegetables can help reduce the risk of gestational diabetes.
During pregnancy, morning sickness, cravings, and food aversions can make it challenging to eat a nutritious diet.
However, eating well can help prevent gestational diabetes and ensure that a woman only gains a healthy amount of weight during each trimester.
Healthful food choices include:
- lean proteins, such as beans, fish, tofu, and white poultry
- healthful fats from nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, and other plant-based fat sources
- whole grains, such as brown rice, pasta, oatmeal, and bread
- low-fat dairy products, such as Greek yogurt
- nonstarchy vegetables
It is best to avoid:
- processed foods
- sugary beverages, including store-bought coffee drinks, energy drinks, juices, and sodas
- extra or added sugar
Attend routine care appointments
A woman should see a gynecologist regularly during pregnancy for routine care. During these visits, the doctor will ask about the pregnancy and any new symptoms.
They will also do a pelvic exam and use an ultrasound to look at the developing fetus. A doctor may recognize some of the early signs of gestational diabetes and suggest ways to help prevent it.
Between 24 and 28 weeks, a pregnant woman will have a gestational diabetes screening. If the results come back positive for gestational diabetes, the doctor will talk to her about how to prevent further complications.
There are several primary risk factors for developing gestational diabetes, including:
- being overweight or having obesity
- having had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
- having a close family member with type 2 diabetes
- being African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Hispanic, or a Pacific Islander
- having prediabetes
Early signs and symptoms
Extreme thirst is a possible symptom of early gestational diabetes.
Many women with gestational diabetes do not experience significant symptoms. The symptoms may also be difficult to distinguish from those that occur due to regular changes during pregnancy.
Possible early signs and symptoms of gestational diabetes include:
- extreme thirst
- frequent, large-volume urination
- sugar in the urine
- numerous bladder, vaginal, or skin infections
- blurred vision
When to see a doctor
It is usually possible to discuss gestational diabetes at a regular scheduled appointment during pregnancy.
However, anyone who experiences changes in symptoms or other complications should speak to a doctor or another healthcare professional as soon as possible.
A doctor can ask the individual about their symptoms and determine whether further tests are necessary.
It is not always possible to prevent gestational diabetes. Certain risk factors make it more likely that a woman will develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
However, maintaining a healthy weight before and after conception, eating well, and exercising regularly during pregnancy can all reduce the risk.
Anyone worried that they might have gestational diabetes or a higher risk of it should discuss this with a doctor at their next pregnancy checkup.