Whether it’s ice cream, donuts, or peanut butter, the sugar-filled cravings experienced by pregnant women are well documented. With so many sweet treats, a doctor’s diagnosis of gestational diabetes might leave many moms-to-be wondering if they’re to blame for their condition.
While gestational diabetes will require some additional dietary alterations and blood sugar monitoring, you can rest assured that an ice cream habit isn’t to blame.
Eating sugar doesn’t cause diabetes
The myth that eating sugar causes diabetes is prevalent throughout society. This oversimplification is further fueled by a guilt and shame-focused philosophy to fitness. Although it’s true that poor diet, excessive weight gain, a lack of exercise, and a strong family history might contribute to the earlier expression of adult-onset diabetes, sugar consumption by itself does not “cause” diabetes.
Gestational diabetes in particular occurs specifically during pregnancy and can happen to pregnant women at all levels of fitness, regardless of their diet.
Why does gestational diabetes happen?
While eating sugar doesn’t play a significant role in the development of diabetes, metabolizing sugar in the body is important for a baby’s development. Sugar is the only metabolic fuel that can directly cross from the mother through the placenta and through the blood-brain barrier to grow and develop the baby’s brain.
Because sugar is so important to the baby, placental hormones and enzymes such as cortisol, progesterone, and placental insulinase can influence and control your blood sugar much more effectively than your diet. These hormones and enzymes can manipulate and change a pregnant woman’s metabolism as needed to increase mom’s blood sugar for the fetus. Sometimes these changes can lead to a tilting of the metabolic scale causing the higher blood sugars associated with gestational diabetes.
Insulinase, an enzyme unique to pregnancy, is particularly to blame for elevated blood sugar. It is made in the placenta and moves from the placenta into the mother’s bloodstream in order to destroy mom’s insulin molecules, thus raising her blood sugar levels. These higher levels of sugar allow the fetus to “feed” off it ensuring its own survival. In times of food shortages, this brilliant survival mechanism ensures that the baby can thrive, even in third world famine conditions.
Remember that having gestational diabetes, although not overtly harmful to your baby, can cause an increased incidence of large babies, C-section, neonatal low blood sugars and a higher chance of bilirubin and electrolyte imbalances for a few days in the newborn.
Although gestational diabetes is caused by a mechanism of pregnancy itself, it should still be diagnosed and monitored to ensure the health of both mother and baby. If you’re diagnosed with gestational diabetes, your doctor will likely give you a dietary plan to follow. Be sure to follow the plan and care for yourself, but don’t feel guilty about the sugar you’ve eaten in the past. Just as high blood pressure is not caused by eating salt, gestational diabetes is not caused by your past sweet-tooth choices, but having it should alter your future choices.
Always speak with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns. No pregnancy is perfect, but I hope your pregnancy is the very best it can be.
Be safe, be well and have fun!
David L. Berry, M.D.
Founder and Staff Physician
Austin Perinatal Associates