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The role of sugar in pregnancy

The role of sugar in pregnancy Sweet temptation

Summary

If you have a sweet tooth, sugary foods can be hard to resist. But with very little nutritional value, they have little to no benefit as part of your pregnancy diet. Naturally sweet alternatives are a much healthier option. Learn how sugar can affect you and your baby during pregnancy, and read ideas for healthy sweet snacks that provide essential nutrients too.

Sugar and your pregnancy diet

Although many of us enjoy a little sweetness in our diet, sugar and sugary foods contain very few useful nutrients for you or your developing baby.

Most sugary foods and drinks are made with sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar. This form of sugar releases energy quickly, causing blood glucose to spike and triggering a rapid release of insulin to absorb it. You’ve probably experienced the boost of a sugar rush, which is generally followed by a dramatic slump in energy. Rather than keeping you going throughout the day, this process can leave you feeling more tired than you were to begin with1.

Sugary foods contain very few useful nutrients for you or your developing baby.

A low-sugar intake helps to keep your blood sugar more stable, along with your resulting energy levels2. During pregnancy this is more likely to result in a healthier pregnancy weight gain1, reduce your risk of gestational diabetes3 and pre-eclampsia4, and may help to reduce the risk of your baby becoming overweight later in life2.

This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy anything sweet. A healthier approach is to limit sugary foods in pregnancy and better still, replace them with naturally sweet nutritious alternatives.

Understanding gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes specific to pregnancy that tends to develop sometime after 20 weeks. It occurs when the body can’t produce enough insulin to regulate the level of glucose in the blood3.

The condition has been connected to higher birth weight babies, but can often be successfully managed through a low-sugar diet to minimise any associated pregnancy or birth complications3.

If your midwife thinks you are at a higher risk of gestational diabetes, you’ll probably be offered a glucose tolerance test (GTT) at around 28 weeks3.

Factors that can increase your risk include5:

  • Previously giving birth to a baby weighing more than 9.9lbs
  • Having gestational diabetes in the past
  • Having a grandparent, parent or sibling with diabetes
  • Being of south Asian, black Caribbean or Middle Eastern origin

Maintaining a healthy pregnancy weight through a low-sugar diet and regular exercise can help to minimise your likelihood of developing the condition1.

“High sugar foods provide empty calories – energy with very little nutritional value.”1

Choosing healthier alternatives to sugary foods

While sweet, sugary foods can be tempting, cakes, pastries, biscuits and sugary drinks should ideally be reserved as occasional treats. It’s better for both you and your baby to avoiding eating too much sugar and find healthier alternatives instead.

Fruits such as mango, pineapple and berries are good ways to satisfy a sweet craving while providing a variety of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fresh, frozen and tinned varieties are all ideal, but be sure to choose tinned fruit in natural juice or water without added sugar6. Try to spread out your fruit intake during the day for a steadier release of the natural sugars they contain7.

Dried fruit is another great option. Try dried apricots and prunes for an extra dose of iron8. When buying dried fruit, be careful to choose varieties that don’t contain any added sugar.

Next Steps

Try these lower-sugar food swaps:

  • Carrot sticks with hummus, instead of biscuits
  • Chop fresh fruit into your cereal or porridge, instead of using sugar
  • Homemade popcorn, instead of a shop-bought sweet variety
  • Dried fruit or nuts, instead of sweets
  • Carbonated water with added fresh juice, instead of cola
  • Greek yogurt and berries, instead of ice cream

View references

Hide references

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1. Murrin C., A. Shrivastava, and C. C. Kelleher. Maternal macronutrient intake during pregnancy and 5 years postpartum and associations with child weight status aged five. Eur J Clin Nutr 2013;67(6):670-679.

2. Walsh JM., et al. The association of maternal and fetal glucose homeostasis with fetal adiposity and birthweight. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 2011;159(2):338-341.

3. NHS UK. Gestational diabetes [Online]. 2016. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/gestational-diabetes/pages/introduction.aspx [Accessed September 2016]

4. Borgen I et al. Maternal sugar consumption and risk of preeclampsia in nulliparous Norwegian women. Eur J Clin Nutr 2012 2012;66(8):920-5.

5. NHS UK. Diabetes and pregnancy [Online]. 2015. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/diabetes-pregnant.aspx [Accessed September 2016]

6. NHS UK. 5 a day – What counts? [Online]. 2015. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Livewell/5ADAY/Pages/Whatcounts.aspx [Accessed September 2016]

7. Diabetes Care UHL, University Hospitals of Leicester NHS trust. Gestational diabetes dietary advice [Online]. 2010. Available at: www.leicestershirediabetes.org.uk/uploads/123/documents/Gestational%20Diabetes%20Diet_BME.pdf [Accessed September 2016]

8. NHS UK. Iron-deficiency anaemia - treatment [Online]. 2016. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Anaemia-iron-deficiency-/Pages/Treatment.aspx [Accessed September 2016]

Last reviewed: 9th September 2016
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