Sweet Sorrow: Why to Part with Sugar During Pregnancy

We all know that too much sugar is not good for us, and this is especially true during pregnancy. Foods that are high in sugar and contain few other nutrients are poor choices for the number of calories consumed. During pregnancy, women need to eat only about 300 extra calories per day, so to get the most nutrition out of those calories, it is best to avoid foods high in sugar. But what about the cravings for those oh-so-bad foods? (Ice cream and pickles in the middle of the night?) And why is sugar such a big deal during pregnancy anyway?
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The most significant risk in eating too much sugar during pregnancy is developing gestational diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), gestational diabetes affects about 4 percent of all pregnant women—about 135,000 cases of gestational diabetes in the United States each year. Most women with gestational diabetes don’t remain diabetic after the baby is born. But once a woman has had it, she is at higher risk for getting it again during a future pregnancy and for becoming diabetic later in life, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Other problems that may occur include preeclampsia, which is a serious medical condition affecting all organs of the body. It may require that the baby be delivered early, and severe preeclampsia can lead to seizures, kidney, or liver problems.

Gestational diabetes develops when the body is not able to make and use all the insulin it needs for pregnancy. During digestion, most food is broken down into a type of sugar called glucose. With the help of insulin, glucose provides energy for the cells of the body. During pregnancy, hormones make it harder for a woman’s body to use insulin, so the pancreas needs to produce more of it. When a woman’s pancreas can’t keep up with the insulin demand and her blood glucose levels get too high, the result is gestational diabetes.

Studies also confirm that too much sugar not only risks the development of gestational diabetes, but it can also cause big babies—increasing the likelihood of a C-section for some women. Even if gestational diabetes does not develop, higher blood sugar levels are not uncommon during pregnancy. According to ACOG, macrosomia (a very large baby) occurs when the mother’s blood sugar level is high throughout pregnancy. This allows too much sugar to go to the baby and can cause the baby to grow excessively large. If the baby is too large, delivery can be difficult, including problems delivering the baby’s shoulders and an increased risk of caesarean birth.

Most people probably don’t think they consume that much added sugar in their food, but more sugar is added in the processing of foods than people may realize. Based on the USDA’s  “Food Guide Pyramid,” a person eating 2,200 calories a day should eat no more than twelve added teaspoons of sugar each day. But according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, the average American eats more than thirty-two teaspoons of added sugar each day! For instance, one can of soda has the equivalent of ten teaspoons of sugar. It’s easy to add up.

Here are some tips for cutting sugar:

  • We all know that “forbidden fruit” is just that much more tempting. Luckily, in this case, “fruit” is a healthy choice. Fresh fruit provides fiber and vitamins along with natural sugar. Just opt for one piece of fruit instead of a smoothie, which is loaded with excess sugar. 
  • Drink lots of water—sometimes when you have a craving for sweets, you may just be thirsty
  • Mix sparkling water with a touch of fruit juice in place of soda or fruit juices
  • According to ACOG, exercise can help prevent or treat gestational diabetes
  • Substitute natural applesauce in recipes instead of sugar
  • Use all-fruit spreads instead of sugar-infused jelly, jams, and preservatives
  • Limit the amount of processed foods (canned foods, precooked meals), and check the labels for added sugar
  • Keep portions small when indulging in sweets or dessert. (When nothing but chocolate will do, have a small piece or two, not the entire box!)

Try these recipes for healthier ways to indulge your sweet tooth:

Carrot Cupcakes

  • 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup light olive oil (or healthy vegetable oil)
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • Three eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups finely shredded carrots (about 3-4 medium carrots)


  • 6 ounces light cream cheese
  • 3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup grated coconut
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons of pecans or walnuts for topping (optional)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line twelve muffin cups with paper liners.
  2. Sift together the first six ingredients. In another large bowl, whisk the oil, applesauce, brown sugar, and eggs until well combined. Then whisk in the vanilla and carrots. Add the dry ingredients and mix until combined.
  3. Divide the batter between the muffin cups. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about twenty minutes. Let cupcakes cool completely.
  4. With an electric mixer, beat together first six ingredients of frosting until smooth and creamy. Frost the cooled cupcakes and sprinkle with the remaining two tablespoons chopped nuts if desired.
  5. Alternative to frosting: sprinkle cupcakes lightly with confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon.

Peach and Blueberry Crisp

  • Four medium ripe peaches, pitted and sliced
  • 1-1/2 cups blueberries
  • 2 tablespoons superfine sugar
  • Fine grated zest of 1/2 orange

For the topping

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • Pinch each of salt, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 3/4 stick unsalted butter, diced
  • 3/4 cup toasted hazelnuts or almonds, chopped fine


  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. In a bowl, toss the peaches with the blueberries, sugar, and orange zest and put them in a 2-1/2 pint baking dish.
  3. To prepare the topping: sift the flour, salt, and spices into a bowl and stir in the sugar. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture blends together. Stir in the nuts.
  4. Scatter the topping mixture over the fruit and bake in the oven for about forty minutes, until the topping is golden and crisp, and the juices are bubbling round the edges. Serve with cream, plain yogurt, or reduced-sugar ice cream.

(Recipe adapted from The Healthy Pregnancy Cookbook: Eating Twice as Well for a Healthy Baby by Jane Middleton and George Rapitis.)


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