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Everything Black Moms Need to Know About Gestational Diabetes
August 24, 2021

Everything Black Moms Need to Know About Gestational Diabetes

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Everything Black Moms Need to Know About Gestational Diabetes.
Everything Black Moms Need to Know About Gestational Diabetes

Somewhere between 2% and 10% of pregnant people will experience gestational diabetes—and being a person of color puts you at a higher risk. So what is gestational diabetes? And how is race a risk factor? Here’s what you need to know.

What is diabetes, and when does it occur during pregnancy?

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases explains that diabetes is a condition that occurs when the levels of glucose in your blood (also called blood sugar) is too high.

This can be because your body doesn’t make enough insulin, which is used to transform glucose into energy. If you have type 1 diabetes, your body doesn’t make insulin at all. If you have type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t make or use insulin very well.

Diabetes that occurs during pregnancy is called gestational diabetes. Sometimes, this happens when you were diagnosed with diabetes prior to conception that continues during your pregnancy. But you can also develop diabetes during pregnancy itself. Untreated, it can lead to premature birth, higher birth weights and even miscarriage or stillbirth, so it’s really important to diagnose and manage it.

Many people with gestational diabetes won’t experience any symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains. To help diagnose, most healthcare providers will have you take a gestational diabetes test between your 24th and 28th week of pregnancy.

If you do have gestational diabetes, your provider will work with you to help manage it through a combination of activity, diet and blood sugar monitoring. Some people may also need to take insulin injections.

Why are there racial disparities in who gets it and who doesn’t?

Researchers estimate that there is a high risk of gestational diabetes for women of color—5-8% for Black, Latinx and Asian populations, and up to 15% for some Native American communities.

So, why is race a risk factor? The answer: It’s complicated.

“I’m not actually saying the pigmentation of someone’s skin has anything to do with them having a disease,” says Dr. Michelle Ogunwole, MD, a health disparities researcher at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Instead, she says, someone’s race “can sometimes come with certain disadvantages and [those can impact] their health.”

Dr. Ogunwole says that conditions like higher weight and chronic hypertension can increase your risk of getting gestational diabetes—and that Black women may be more likely to experience those issues, largely due to structural racism.

The CDC estimates that 80.6% of Black women in the U.S. are at a higher weight, compared to 64.8% of white women. There are similar disparities for hypertension (high blood pressure), which affects 40.3% of Black adults, 27.8% of white adults, 27.8% of Latinx adults and 25% of Asian adults.

Dr. Ogunwole points to the fact that many of the neighborhoods that house Black and other minority communities have limited food options, a dearth of outdoor recreational spaces and a lack of public transport to easily get to other neighborhoods.

“You can map the disadvantage in food access,” she says. “[Many] people live in food deserts and food swamps, where there’s five fast food restaurants in one area [and no grocery stores]. There’s a disparity in the number of liquor stores placed in certain communities. There is disproportionate marketing of fast foods and unhealthy foods.” Over time, these sorts of disparities create a larger impact on one’s health.

Research also shows that pregnant people of color are less likely to have access to prenatal care during their first trimester. This means they may not know about their risks of gestational diabetes and how to mitigate them, which could contribute to further disparities.

What are some of the signs of gestational diabetes?

Though not everyone who has gestational diabetes has symptoms, there are some common ones to watch out for:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurred vision

If you’re experiencing any of these, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider right away.

Is there anything you can do to reduce your risk of developing gestational diabetes?

If you are at a higher risk of gestational diabetes, due to any combination of factors, experts recommend that you learn more about the condition and talk to your healthcare provider about do what you can to lower your risks. These are a few tings that may help:

  • Focus on nutrition. Follow your healthcare provider’s guidelines about how to maintain a nutritious diet during pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends eating an extra 340 calories per day once you reach the second trimester of a singleton pregnancy. If you’re at a high risk for gestational diabetes, your healthcare provider may recommend a diet lower in carbs and higher in fiber.
  • Manage weight gain. Gaining a lot of weight early on in pregnancy is linked to a higher risk of gestational diabetes. Your doctor should work with you individually to determine roughly how much weight you should aim to gain during pregnancy.
  • Attend all prenatal appointments. Your medical team will be monitoring your health for all sorts of complications, gestational diabetes among them, so they can diagnose and help you manage issues as soon as possible. Attending all of your appointments helps your provider stay in tune with your body’s changes—be sure to let them know of any symptoms you may be experiencing, even if you’re just feeling a little “off.”

“We should all be in conversations together about risk and some of the special things that need to be considered during pregnancy,” Dr. Ogunwole says.

Dr. Ogunwole stresses that it’s super important to carefully manage any chronic conditions, like hypertension, during your pregnancy. If you’re being treated for a chronic disease, make sure all your doctors know about it, so they can collaborate to keep you and your baby healthy during pregnancy.

Nina Bahadur

Nina Bahadur is a writer and editor focused on maternal health, racial disparities and health care access. She loves crosswords, long walks and exploring NYC with her rescue dog.

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