How do you get gestational diabetes?

Rebecca McPhee
Dietitian Member of the DAA

3 Minutes

As a Dietitian, one of the most common questions I get asked about Gestational Diabetes is 'how do you get it?' There is a range of factors that can contribute to the risks of you being diagnosed from your genetics, ethnic background and lifestyle.  


What is gestational diabetes? 

Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy when the hormones produced by the placenta block the action of a women's insulin in regulating blood sugar levels.  

Irregular blood sugar levels can lead to some complications including early labour, bigger babies and high blood pressure for mums - among others.  

Gestational diabetes usually goes away when the baby is born; however, research shows that women who have had gestational diabetes are 50% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life. Further, if you have gestational diabetes in your first pregnancy, you have a 30-69% chance of It reoccurring in future pregnancies.

The good news is that in most cases, gestational diabetes can be managed to ensure a healthy mum and bub – making testing very important.   


Here are 7 risk factors:


1. Being over the age of 40  

Maternal age has become a growing trend in recent years for women in the western world. Research has shown women over the age of 40 are at a higher risk of gestational diabetes than younger expectant mothers.


2. Ethnic background 

Being from an Asian, Indian subcontinent, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Pacific Islander, Maori, Middle Eastern or non-white African background. 


3. Your DNA 

A family history of type 2 diabetes or a first-degree relative (mother or sister) who has had gestational diabetes will put you at a higher risk. Unfortunately, you can't change this, but you can limit additional factors by focusing on leading a healthy lifestyle. 


4. Lifestyle Factors 

If you are above a healthy weight range and/or gained weight too rapidly in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, this will put you at a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes. Following a healthy, balanced diet and engaging in regular physical activity are sure ways to achieve healthy body weight and reduce your risk.v vi 


5 . Previous Diagnosis 

If you have had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy or elevated blood sugar levels in the past, studies suggest you are 30% more likely to be diagnosed in a future pregnancy. 



Some types of anti-psychotic or steroid medications can increase your risk of gestational diabetes. Be sure to ask your GP or pharmacist if you have any questions regarding the long-term effects of any medications you are currently taking. 


7. Hormones  

If you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), there is an increased risk that you will develop diabetes during pregnancy.vii PCOS is one of the most common hormonal problems in women during their reproductive years, and most cases are undiagnosed. 

While we can't change our age, genes or cultural background, we can take control of the type of lifestyle we lead. Eating well, moving more and aiming for a healthy weight will reduce your risk of developing gestational diabetes. Forming healthy habits and sticking to them after pregnancy will also set you up for a healthier future for you and your baby, including preventing type 2 diabetes. 



  • Being diagnosed with gestational diabetes is usually a combination of factors.  

  • Some of the factors are within our control, such as lifestyle. While others, such as age and ethnic background, are not.  

  • Reaching a healthy weight, eating well and moving more, will reduce the risk of developing gestational diabetes.  

  • Practising healthy habits early on will set you and your baby up for a healthy future, including preventing lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes. 


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  • O’Sullivan J. Diabetes Mellitus after GDM.  Diabetes 1991; 29 (Suppl.2): 131‐35  
  • Moses RG. The recurrence rate of gestational diabetes mellitus in subsequent  pregnancies. Diabetes Care 1996; 19: 1348‐1350 
  • Stephanie MacNeill et al. Rates and Risk Factors for Recurrence of Gestational Diabetes. Diabetes Care 2001 Apr; 24(4): 659-662. 
  • Nankervis A, McIntyre HD, Moses R, Ross GP, Callaway L, Porter C, Jeffries W,  Boorman C, De Vries B, McElduff. ADIPS Consensus Guidelines for the Testing and  Diagnosis of Gestational Diabetes Mellitus in Australia . Australasian Diabetes in Pregnancy  Society  
  • Cuilin Zhang et al. Adherence to healthy lifestyle and risk of gestational diabetes mellitus: prospective cohort study. BMJ 2014; 349 
  • Mijatovic-Vukas. J et al. Associations of Diet and Physical Activity with Risk for Gestational Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients 2018, 10(6), 698; 
  • Joan C Loan et al. Increased Prevelance of gestational Diabetes Mellitus Among Women With Diagnosed Polycystic Ovarian Sydnrome. A Population Based Study. Diabetes Care, Volume 29, Number 8, August 2006. 

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