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My Love-Hate Relationship with Gestational Diabetes

A few weeks back, my husband and I attended a fiesta-themed baby shower at a local saloon (That’s right, babies in bars). The scene was a quirky mash-up of spaghetti western and The Three Amigos: dusty cowboy boots hung from rafters while 99 Cent Store sombreros dangled from rails; whiskey and cerveza slicked the bar on one side, while a buffet of nachos, dulce de leche cupcakes, churros, and crack mix lined the other.

At the time, I was just entering my second trimester of pregnancy. While plenty of things throughout this pregnancy have been trying, abstaining from drinking has been fairly low on the list. For the most part I haven’t craved or missed it, but when I find myself in large social gatherings where alcohol is front and center and I don’t know a majority of the people, my immediate impulse isn’t exactly to toss back a few bottles of water. In these situations I’ve developed a tendency to overcompensate for my inability to drink by pounding sweets. That being said, it should come as no surprise I decided to chomp down two cupcakes and a churro that festive afternoon, rather than eating the damn nachos like a normal person.

Within an hour I experienced a wave of cold sweats, spotty vision, and ringing in my ears: familiar signs I was on the verge of passing out. This happened several times over the weeks that followed and I began to notice trends. I was guaranteed to nearly pass out if I ate a yogurt parfait in the morning. Same went for the chocolate croissant and caramel macchiato combo I started having for breakfast about four times a week (I know), but I was fine if I ate scrambled eggs.

Despite this observation, because I am a creature of habit and because I really, really fucking love chocolate, I pressed forward with the sugary routine. I even doubled down with a Reese’s in the afternoon and half a dozen Oreos after dinner, and although I was pumping enough sugar into my bloodstream to piss lemonade, I still managed to muster legitimate confusion upon feeling weak and exhausted. I’m not proud; sugar is a helluva drug.

I was first warned of Gestational Diabetes — a form of diabetes that occurs specifically during pregnancy when the hormones emitted by the placenta inhibit the body’s ability to process insulin — by the same friend whose baby shower I’d attended, but after some light reading I was confident I would skate by under the convenient assumption that dietary habits weren’t as influential a factor as weight and family history. Pregnant women are more at risk of developing gestational diabetes if they’re overweight, have a family history of diabetes, and are of a non-Caucasian background (for reasons not well understood). As far as I could tell, none of these precursors applied to me.

You could imagine my surprise when I got the affirmative lab work.

With this affirmation came a slough of restrictions to pile atop the ones I already had just by virtue of being pregnant, all of which culminated in one very significant, depressing conclusion: no junk food. And boy, let me tell you, no better way to turn this introvert into a recluse than to knock me up and throw in some ‘betes for good measure.

A day after learning of my condition I attended my niece’s twelfth birthday party, and while I thoroughly enjoyed spending quality time with my family, I also couldn’t help getting the sense that everything around me had become a big fuck you. While everyone bowled, drank beer, and ate pizza and cake I got high on the joyous principles of discipline and moderation (note: here please read “got high” as “stewed in deep despair and resentment”).

Having to abstain from things I love, which have become integral parts of how I “treat” myself and feel a sense of ease and engagement in social situations has easily been the most challenging part of being pregnant and having gestational diabetes. Reliance on these habits isn’t necessarily healthy, but knowing this hasn’t made them any easier to modify. And believe me, there’s been plenty to modify.

To assure my baby’s health and avoid complications (the baby could grow too large, increasing the risk of injury during delivery. He could also be at risk of being hypoglycemic and developing Type 2 Diabetes, to specify a couple), I have to keep my blood sugar stable. This requires strict monitoring and control of my carb and sugar intake.

Part of this is being more thoughtful about the kinds of carbs I eat and how I eat them. As a general rule, the more challenging a carb is to metabolize, the better, so Plain Flour and I are tentatively on a break while I take some time to explore the exciting world of whole grains and nut substitutes, and don’t even get me started on Real Sugar. Let’s just say it’s been a messy, painful divorce.

To make sure the carbs I do eat don’t run amok in my bloodstream, those surly fuckers need supervision. To this end a buddy system works best. No crossing the street without holding hands with Protein, and as long as we’re in the road, let’s turn that jaywalk into a block party. Fat and Fiber are invited. The more the merrier.

In less personified terms, carbs are best when they’re complex and shouldn’t be eaten alone. To minimize havoc on blood sugar it helps to balance them with protein, healthy fats, and fiber.

It also helps to eat smaller, more frequent and regimented meals. Rather than eating approximately three meals of various sizes and portions whenever I’m hungry, I now have to alternate between carefully portioned snacks and meals every two to three hours, and check my blood an hour after every meal. So the routine looks a little like this: wake up, check blood, eat breakfast, check blood, eat snack, eat lunch, check blood, eat snack, eat dinner, check blood, eat snack, go to bed. An alarm every hour or two, nine times a day. This can be inconvenient when I’m not hungry, or the timing interferes with my daily tasks.

Still, in the scheme of things I’ve had to change, dealing with constant alarms has been tolerable compared to the complete overhaul I’ve had to make of breakfast and dessert.

Because milk and fruit are more likely to cause my blood sugar to spike in the morning, pretty much everything I like to eat for breakfast is verboten. No more yogurt parfaits. No more caramel macchiatos. No more chocolate croissants, or cereal. This is a doubly sharp prick in my ass because these choices aren’t just a matter of what I crave, they’re also a matter of convenience: they’re fast and take practically no time or effort to make. This hasn’t been the case with the more diabetes-friendly options (eggs, bacon, sausage, steel-cut oatmeal). I crave them less and they take more time to prepare, so I’ve had little incentive to make this adjustment beyond the fact that I have to.

Dessert has been especially tough because it’s been part of my daily routine since childhood. Calling it a habit is an understatement because it’s really more of a reflex at this point. It’s also something I’ve rationalized (admittedly for no good reason) as the one “treat” I could keep. I traded the Oreos and pints of ice cream for Keto desserts and low-carb, protein-enriched ice cream with almonds, and for a while this kept my blood sugar at bay, but my body has recently decided to be a sadistic shit and start raising my blood sugar in the morning. So now, in place of anything remotely resembling dessert, I get to eat Triscuits and cheese. Fucking joy.

Was that a tone? That was a tone.

I guess I should acknowledge I’ve done nothing but complain for the last seven minutes. I just really can’t stress enough what a pain in the ass gestational diabetes is when compounded with the seemingly never-ending litany of changes and mild annoyances pregnancy presents in and of itself. But to be fair, it’s not all bad. I suppose there is a teensy hip check to be had right about now.

Like so.

I mean, I’m not a total victim here.

I had awful eating habits prior to learning of my gestational diabetes. There were a lot of things I knew were unhealthy, but chose to ignore.

My sugar consumption was straight up embarrassing. Did I mention I once went to Dairy Queen, ordered a Reese’s Blizzard, smashed it in my car, and went back twenty minutes later for another? No? Well, here’s step one: my name is Kiki Turrin and I am a sugar addict.

Sugar comprised at least half of my caloric intake on any given day in the weeks leading up to learning of the gestational diabetes, and I had all kinds of hokey rationalizations for it, not least of which being the stereotype of the pregnant woman enslaved by mad cravings. There was a base sense that pregnancy was the only time I could eat like a slob, gain sixty pounds, and my belly would nevertheless be looked at as a “beautiful,” miraculous thing. I blame idyllic maternity photo shoots. The ones of women dressed like Grecian goddesses with wreaths on their heads, bulbous bellies flayed out in a field, looking like Mother Nature incarnate. That’s not me, but I was definitely emboldened to let it all hang out in the frozen foods section at Walmart, so, you know, not far off.

I’d also known for quite some time that smaller meals spread throughout the day are better for blood sugar and weight management than my whimsical routine of a sugary breakfast, no lunch, and carb bomb around four in the afternoon. Nevertheless, I persisted because it was easy, and delicious, and as far as I could tell nothing was at stake. But here’s the thing: I was more susceptible to diabetes than I knew, or was willing to acknowledge.

A risk factor of gestational diabetes that I overlooked was pre-diabetes — when blood sugar is elevated, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. Prior to my second trimester of pregnancy I had no cause to get my blood sugar tested, but given my habits it’s highly likely I was pre-diabetic and didn’t know it.

This is especially true in light of the fact that diabetes does, indeed, run in my family (another thing I was wrong about). Since learning of my gestational diabetes, it’s come to my attention my brother is pre-diabetic, and my father and grandmother have type-2 diabetes. So here I was, this whole time, thinking I was taking a leisurely dip in the temperate Mediterranean when I was really flailing around in the rocky, shark-infested waters of Monterey with a bloody gash on my ankle.

Had I not gotten gestational diabetes, I never would have known how at risk I am of developing type-2 diabetes. While gestational diabetes has been inconvenient, it will likely dissipate once my pregnancy is over, whereas type-2 diabetes would likely be a life sentence. In this sense, I feel like Bill Murray in Scrooged. Like I’m getting a troubling, yet temporary glimpse of what things could be like if I don’t change my overly self-indulgent, sugar-smacking ways.

While managing the gestational diabetes has been a lot of work, I believe it’s going to save me a lot of trouble down the road. Having to make all the changes required to keep my blood sugar stable has instilled new routines to make it easier to avoid type-2 diabetes and practice better health and weight management once the gestational diabetes is gone. And let’s be honest, these are changes I never would have made had it not been for a swift kick in the pancreas.

Because I’ve had to check my blood after every single meal, I’m now far more knowledgeable about the impact sugar and carbs have on my blood. Seeing some of the things that have caused my blood sugar to spike (most recently a sliver of pepperoni pizza and a couple bites of a chocolate chip cookie accompanied by two chicken legs caused my blood sugar to skyrocket) makes me cringe at the amount of sugar I was eating before.

I’ve also realized how powerful routines are when it comes to diet. Initially it was really, really hard to ditch the caramel macchiatos and chocolate croissants. Everything I tried as an alternative paled in comparison, but the thing about sugar is the less you eat, the less you want to eat. Once you stop eating the sugar, you crave it less and grow more amenable to alternatives. Once you find an alternative you like, it then becomes the new routine and, by extension, the new thing you crave. In my case that’s become an unsweetened almond milk latte with sugar free cinnamon and brown sugar syrup with paleo pancakes and bacon.

It would be misleading not to admit I still crave real sugar, but knowing what I do and having alternatives I like makes it easier to manage. This isn’t all to say I’ll never indulge again; my husband already has orders to have a peanut butter chocolate sundae at the ready as soon as this baby comes out. I guess my point is that I’ve learned a lot about the importance and necessity of moderation, which I’ve been thoroughly incentivized not to forgot or neglect, and for that I am grateful.

Raspberries all around when this is over.

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