A woman’s body changes significantly during pregnancy, from weight gain and food cravings to hormonal fluctuations. Occasionally, a woman might experience pregnancy-related high blood pressure or diabetes, known as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, respectively. In comparison to regular high blood pressure and diabetes, these are caused solely by pregnancy and disappear once the baby is born.

Recent research, however, has begun to draw a link between preeclampsia and gestational diabetes and future heart problems. Hoping to see what would mitigate those risks, a new study out of the NIH and published in Hypertension analyzed how a healthy diet could reduce the risk of high blood pressure among women who had experienced gestational diabetes.

The study found that women with gestational diabetes certainly fared better when consuming a healthy diet, and their risk of hypertension was reduced by 20 percent, even among obese women. “Our study suggests that women who have had gestational diabetes may indeed benefit from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in red and processed meats,” said Dr. Cuilin Zhang, senior investigator in the Epidemiology Branch of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in a statement.

In the study, the researchers examined some 4,000 female participants in the Nurses’ Health Study II, a component of the Diabetes & Women’s Health Study, which tracks women’s eating habits by surveys every four years. They attempted to categorize eating habits into three different “healthy” diets: the Alternative Eating Index, Mediterranean-style Diet, and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) — all of which consist of nuts, legumes, whole grains, and fish. These diets were also low in red and processed meats, salt, and sugar. DASH, in particular, was developed specifically to fight high blood pressure without medication.

The study adjusted for smoking and family history, and still found that women who adhered to healthier diets were 20 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than women who didn’t. It’s the first study to show that maintaining a healthy diet could help women after experiencing gestational diabetes.

Gestational diabetes occurs among some 5 percent of pregnant women in the U.S., even if they have never had diabetes before. It causes high blood sugar that can affect the baby’s health, but usually disappears right after the baby is born. Typically, however, mothers who have had gestational diabetes are at a higher risk for diabetes later on — as well as for cardiovascular issues. While gestational diabetes can occur even in healthy women, the risk factors are mitigated if moms exercise, avoid fried food before conceiving, and aren’t obese.

Fortunately, as the latest study suggests, women have control over either preventing gestational diabetes — or lowering the risk of future complications, like hypertension, from it. “High blood pressure affects about 30 percent of U.S. adults and increases the risk for heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke,” said Zhang in the statement. “Our study shows that a healthful diet is associated with decreased high blood pressure in an at-risk population.”

Source: Zhang C, et al. Hypertension , 2016.