Researchers found the healthy eating plan reduces the risk of excess weight gain and gestational diabetes.

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Eating a well-rounded diet during pregnancy can help decrease the risk of gestational diabetes. Getty Images

Following the Mediterranean diet has been correlated with preventing heart disease, stabilizing blood sugar, and reducing blood pressure. But now, researchers have found another potential benefit of this thoroughly studied eating plan: a healthier pregnancy.

A study published on July 23 in the journal PLOS Medicine found that the Mediterranean diet led to a significantly lower risk of gestational diabetes and a reduction in excess weight gain during pregnancy.

In the study, researchers in the United Kingdom studied more than 1,100 moms-to-be of various ethnicities who had certain risk factors for pregnancy complications, like obesity and chronic high blood pressure, at five inner-city hospitals.

Researchers looked at data from 553 of the participants, who were assigned to a Mediterranean-style diet. The eating plan recommended a high consumption of nuts, extra virgin olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, non-refined grains, and legumes, along with a moderate to high amount of fish, a small-to-moderate amount of poultry and dairy, and little to no amounts of red meat and processed meat. The diet recommended avoiding all sugary drinks, fast food, and meals with high amounts of animal fat.

Participants in the Mediterranean-style diet group received 30 grams of mixed nuts per day, a half liter of extra virgin olive oil each week, face-to-face consultations with dietitians at 18, 20 and 28 weeks’ gestation, and phone sessions at 24 and 32 weeks’ to reinforce the goals of the diet and evaluate their health.

The study found that the Mediterranean-style diet resulted in a 35 percent reduction in the risk of developing diabetes during pregnancy and 2.75 pounds less in weight gain while carrying a fetus, compared with the control group of expectant mothers who received dietary advice in line with the United Kingdom’s national recommendations.

The latest data builds upon a 2017 study from Spain, which found that women who followed a Mediterranean diet were less likely to develop gestational diabetes.

“This study reiterates the value of the Mediterranean diet,” said Dr. Shweta Patel, OB-GYN at Orlando Health Physician Associates in Winter Garden, Florida.

“Often times in pregnancy, people think they’re not supposed to have a ‘diet,’ just be healthy. This emphasizes that a diet can be done safely, and even lead to safer outcomes by reducing the likelihood of gestational diabetes in moms who are at risk for it.”

Gestational diabetes can occur in any pregnant woman. However, people with certain risk factors, such as a family history of diabetes, being over the age of 25, or a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher are at greater risk of the condition. Women who are black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Asian are also at higher risk.

Around 6 to 9 percent of pregnant women in the United States develop gestational diabetes during their pregnancies.

The condition causes high blood sugar that may lead to pregnancy complications.

“Gestational diabetes can lead to fetal macrosomia, when the baby is really large, and that can lead to complications at the time of the delivery, like the shoulders getting stuck [in the birth canal],” said Dr. Noelia Zork, maternal-fetal medicine specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, who specializes in the treatment of gestational diabetes.

“Gestational diabetes also increases the risk of preeclampsia and C-sections,” she noted.

Furthermore, gestational diabetes can also harm the fetus, added Zork.

“Babies whose mothers have gestational diabetes are at risk of having low blood sugar at birth, respiratory problems, jaundice, and being admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit,” she said.

The cause of gestational diabetes isn’t always known, but it may be related to placental hormones that cause blood sugars to rise to unhealthy levels. The condition typically develops during the second half of pregnancy.

The latest research shows that the Mediterranean diet can be an effective way to decrease the likelihood of developing the metabolic disorder.

Pregnant women may already get some nutritional guidance from their doctors, but it tends to focus on the common foods to avoid (such as alcohol and raw fish), said Zork.

“Presently we don’t talk a lot about what our patients should be eating because there are so many other things to cover,” she explained. “I’m hoping this study will shift some of the focus to adequate nutrition in pregnancy.”

Patel added that earlier dietary interventions can help keep women healthy throughout their pregnancies and beyond.

“Recommending a healthier diet to a woman after she’s already diabetic misses the boat. Healthy eating should be part of the first-visit discussion for pregnant women,” said Patel.

“Having a specific diet to recommend to them will make it easier for most doctors to have that discussion, plus putting a name on that diet allows people to research it on their own.”