Sweet as: giving up sugar during pregnancy

Reach for the healthy option
Reach for the healthy option Photo: Getty Images

Pregnancy has many mums-to-be reaching for sugary snacks to satisfy their cravings. Growing numbers of women, however, are turning their backs on the lolly jar, and avoiding sugar while they are pregnant.

David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison, believes that sugar causes many chronic diseases including kidney disease, various cancers, hypertension, type II diabetes and fatty liver disease, not to mention sugar’s contribution to obesity. 

According to Gillespie, the benefits of pregnant women giving up sugar are numerous. “Women will not gain excessive weight, and they will find it easier to lose weight after the baby is born,” he says. “If you don’t want a child to start life at the front of the queue for all of those chronic diseases, then you should not eat sugar while pregnant.” 

Halfway through her pregnancy Laura Neeson was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. “I gave up sugar for the second half of my pregnancy and managed to completely reverse my original diagnosis of gestational diabetes,” she says. “All by making this significant change to my diet.” Neeson says another benefit of cutting out sugar was gaining very little weight throughout her pregnancy, despite having an eight pound baby. Although some sugar-free plans recommend giving up fruit, at least initially, Neeson choose berries over other fruit such as bananas and mangoes, which she believed would spike her insulin.

Giving up fruit during pregnancy is not recommended, says dietician Kara Landau, as fruit is an important vehicle for vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and antioxidants. “It is actually recommended that you increase your fruit consumption closer to the end of your pregnancy, not decrease it, due to the increased energy requirements needed for breastfeeding,” Landau says.

While there is some debate about the merits of giving up sugar, advocates and nutritionists seem to agree on one thing. That is, the importance for pregnant women to avoid artificial sweeteners at all costs. Nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara says, “Never compensate real sugars for sweeteners. A favourite of dieters, artificial sweeteners are rife, but research suggests they do more harm than good.” Both Landau and O’Meara recommend pregnant women avoid heavily processed products that contain white, refined sugar.

This is something that Amanda Ferguson has done. Currently 20 weeks pregnant, Ferguson, a personal trainer and mother, says if she looks at a product and can’t make it in her own kitchen, she will put it back. Ferguson was sugar free before falling pregnant, and says she has only eaten sugar a few times since becoming pregnant. “I eat lots of fresh foods,” she says. “And I use healthier alternatives for sugar when baking such as coconut sugar, rapadura, dates, fruit, sometimes a bit of honey, maple syrup or rice malt syrup, but in much smaller quantities than a recipe may suggest. When I eat fruit (yes, that’s a sugar too!), I eat it with some nuts or seeds, to level out the sugar rush and keep me fuller for longer.”

During her pregnancy two years ago Andreina Amato also decided to give up sugar. For Amato, this meant she excluded anything with processed, refined sugars. “Generally anything packaged in a box has sugar in it,” she says. “So I avoided all pre-packaged foods. I increased my vegetable and protein intake, and this in fact helped remove the sugar cravings you have as you progress through your pregnancy. Rather than reach for a chocolate biscuit I’d eat a handful of mixed nuts instead.” For Amato, the choice to give up sugar during pregnancy was an indication of her commitment to parenting. “Bringing a child into this world is a big deal,” Amato says. “If you choose to be a parent then the responsibility to take care of your child starts from the womb.”

As a practicing obstetrician on the board of the The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Dr Gino Pecoraro sees many women adopt a more healthy lifestyle when they find out they are pregnant. For Dr Pecoraro giving up processed sugars is not a bad thing for women who are expecting. “I don’t think cutting out refined sugars would cause any major problems during pregnancy as long as they still have plenty of fruit and vegetables, protein and carbohydrates,” he says. However, women indulging in the occasional sweet treat shouldn’t lose sleep, Dr Pecoraro says. “There are lots of fad diets out there and women need to be careful where they get their health information from. Decreasing the amount of refined sugar in your diet isn’t a bad thing,” he says. “I wouldn’t get stressed if you have a lamington. But that’s one, not a tray!”