The Scary Truth About Sugar Intake During Pregnancy

You’ve never experienced a craving for sweets quite like the ones you experience during pregnancy, are we right? The dessert desire can feel nearly irresistible at the end of a long day (or maybe even in the middle). 

It’s common knowledge that too much sugar in one’s diet is unhealthy, so it probably came as no surprise when your doctor recommended that you limit your sugar intake during pregnancy. But what danger does sugar pose to a pregnant woman and her baby in particular?

By: Dr. Tara Kelly, MD & Dr. Adam Brown

5 Reasons to Limit Sugar Intake During Pregnancy

1. Gestational Weight Gain

According to a meta-analysis on sugar consumption during pregnancy, women in the highest quartile of free sugar intake had higher weight gain during pregnancy (Goran, Plows, Ventura, 2018). Too much weight gain in pregnancy can increase the risk of developing gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and even the risk of needing a C-section.

2. Birth Weight

Women in the highest quartile of free sugar intake also gave birth to children with lower birth weights (Goran, Plows, Ventura, 2018). This is known as fetal growth restriction, or intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), and can increase the risk of neonatal complications such as low blood sugar or hyperbilirubinemia, or increase the need for preterm delivery.

3. Preterm Birth

Although many factors contribute to premature delivery, maternal sugar consumption (through sugar-sweetened beverages) is one of the factors related to the risk (Goran, Plows, Ventura, 2018). Preterm birth increases the risks for pediatric health problems, especially in the first year of life, and can increase the risk of the baby needing neonatal intensive care after birth.

4. Atopy and Asthma

Across a cohort, women with the highest free sugar intakes during pregnancy had the highest risk of their children developing atopy or atopic asthma (Bedard et al., 2016). Atopy is a predisposition to go on to develop certain diseases, like asthma, eczema, skin disorders or allergies.

5. Cognitive

Perhaps the most surprising side effect of too much sugar intake during pregnancy is its correlation with poor cognitive performance later on in childhood. Higher maternal sucrose consumption correlates with poor mid-childhood performance on intelligence and nonverbal tests. Higher maternal sugar-sweetened beverages and diet soda consumption also correlate with poor early and mid-childhood cognition scores. HOWEVER: Higher maternal fruit consumption was associated with children in early/mid-childhood scoring higher on cognitive functioning tests. This shows that it is the added/free sugars that are causing these cognitive deficits (Cohen et al., 2018).

How Much Sugar is Safe During Pregnancy?

The American diet is very high in sugar. Currently people are advised against ingesting free sugars: monosaccharides and disaccharides. People are also advised to limit the sugars from honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices (Bedard et al., 2016).

Dietary guidelines promote less than 10% of calories for the day should be from sugars. Men should be eating less than 150 calories from sugar, and women and children should be eating less than 100 calories from sugar (Cohen et al., 2018). 

When it comes to pregnancy, both glucose and fructose are capable of crossing the human placenta (Goran, Plows, Ventura, 2018). While there isn’t a hard and fast number of calories from sugar to stay under for pregnant women, you would be wise to stick to the 100 calories from sugar guideline.

How to Cut Hidden Sugars Out of Your Pregnancy Diet

Many foods contain some amount of sugar naturally, such as fruits and veggies. By no means should you try to cut out ALL sugar from your diet. What should be avoided, or at least limited, are free sugars. Free sugars are sugars that have been added to foods and drinks by either the consumer, the cook or a manufacturer. For example, a chili recipe may call for a tablespoon of brown sugar.

Sugar goes by many different names, which makes it difficult to spot among a list of ingredients. For this reason, it can be hard to reduce sugar intake during pregnancy, even if you are actively trying. Don’t be fooled. Look out for syrups and words that end in “ose” such as fructose and dextrose. These are sugars in disguise. If in doubt, check out this full list of sugar’s 61 names at SugarScience.uscf.edu.

The guiltiest culprit when it comes to sugar intake during pregnancy is sugar-sweetened beverages that contain fructose and sucrose (Cohen et al., 2018). Think sweetened teas, energy drinks, flavored milk, sports drinks, and even juices. 

Let’s not forget sodas. Soda is full of high fructose corn syrup, making it a no-no during your nine months of pregnancy. That includes diet sodas, which use other free sugars besides straight up sugar to sweeten the taste.

Read Also: What Not to Drink When Pregnant: 9 Beverages to Rethink

The Bottom Line About Sugar in Pregnancy

Watch your diet as carefully as you can these next nine months, and avoid free sugars as described above. Consult your doctor to see what a healthy amount of sugar would be for your particular circumstances. Cut sugar-sweetened beverages and diet sodas out of your diet and replace added sugars with fruit and natural sugars.

[Rephrase] We know how hard it can be to hold back from desserts and sweets during pregnancy. It can be so hard to see how our actions today will affect our children down the road, especially if this is your first pregnancy. Our hope is that, armed with this information, you can curb the cravings and make healthier choices for you and your little one.

Want to learn more about a healthy pregnancy diet? Read: Best Pregnancy Diet: 3 Tips to Make it Easy

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Sources

  1. Bédard, A., Northstone, K., Henderson, J., & Shaheen, S. (2016). Maternal sugar intake during pregnancy and respiratory and atopic outcomes in childhood. 7.6 Paediatric Respiratory Epidemiology
  2. Juliana F.W. Cohen, Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, Jessica Young, Emily Oken. Associations of Prenatal and Child Sugar Intake With Child Cognition. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2018
  3. Goran, M. I., Plows, J. F., & Ventura, E. E. (2018). Effects of consuming sugars and alternative sweeteners during pregnancy on maternal and child health: Evidence for a secondhand sugar effect. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society,1-10. 
  4. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 156. Obesity in pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol Dec. 2015;126(6):e112-26. 
  5. McIntire DD, Bloom SL, Casey BM, Leveno KJ. Birth weight in relation to morbidity and mortality among new-born infants. N Engl J Med 1999;340:1234-8.
  6. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 130. Prediction and prevention of preterm birth. Obstet Gynecol 2012;120(4):964-73.