Carrying a healthy baby through the typical nine-month pregnancy is riddled with rules, tips, myths, and restrictions, but the way a mother maintains a healthy lifestyle can affect her baby for the rest of its life. Talk about pressure. A team of American researchers decided to find out what women are at lowest risk for regarding developing diabetes during pregnancy. Their findings appear in the British Medical Journal.

Researchers reviewed lifestyles from more than 12,000 healthy women in the United States between the years 1989 to 2001 in order to figure out who was likely to develop diabetes during their pregnancy. Their weight, diet, exercise, and smoking status were all taken into consideration when looking at gestational diabetes for both mothers and their babies. Unsurprisingly, women who were already overweight or obese with a body mass index (BMI) above 25 before pregnancy were putting their babies at highest risk for gestational diabetes. Pregnant women who have never had diabetes before their pregnancy can develop it due to their sugar levels while pregnant, according to the American Diabetes Association. It all starts when a mother’s body isn’t able to use all the insulin she needs while she’s pregnant, which can really increase the sugar levels in her blood.

Gestational diabetes usually develops in women around week 24 of their pregnancy; however, it affects less than 10 percent of women. It doesn’t cause birth defects, but if it goes untreated or is poorly controled, gestational diabetes can hurt the baby. A mother’s pancreas will start working overtime to produce the insulin, the hormone that helps the body convert food to energy, but it won’t be efficient enough to lower the glucose buildup in her blood. Insulin doesn’t cross through the placenta where the baby resides during pregnancy, but glucose does and the extra high levels cause the baby’s pancreas to make extra insulin to get rid of the blood glucose.

The baby is receiving more energy than it needs to grow, and in return the extra energy is stored as fat. Babies born with extra insulin are at higher risk for obesity and become adults at higher risk for type 2 diabetes. Gestational diabetes was reported in 823 pregnancies, and women with a BMI above 33 were more than four times as likely to develop it as women in healthier weight ranges. On the flipside, low-risk women who didn’t smoke, engaged in regular physical activity, and maintained a healthy weight were 41 percent less likely to develop gestational diabetes compared to women with higher risk factors. If low-risk women began their pregnancy at a healthy, normal weight they increased the likelihood of avoiding gestational diabetes by 53 percent.

"Perhaps we can help to slow or even reverse current trends in obesity, metabolic disease, and cardiovascular risk that continue to rise steadily as part of a 'diabetes begets diabetes' cycle," Associate Professor Sara Meltzer, McGill University, said in an editorial. It isn’t easy for every woman to incorporate a healthy diet, exercise regimen, maintain healthy body weight, and quit smoking into their lives, but the new findings, according to Meltzer, "should give health professionals and women planning a pregnancy the encouragement they need to try even harder.”

Source: Zhang C, Hu FB, Ley SH, Bao W, Chavarro JE, Tobias DK, et al. Adherence to healthy lifestyle and risk of gestational diabetes mellitus: prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal. 2014.