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My Journey to Empowering Women and Why I'm Focused in on Gestational Diabetes

Updated: Mar 15


Anja with elbows on table smiling holding a strawberry


Intro to My Journey - My Fear of Sugar and It’s Impact


Since I was about 13 years old, I’ve always been hyper-aware of my body and how I feel when I eat and drink certain foods. I’ve been especially aware of what sugar - processed sugar, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup - does to my body. Even how too much fruit sugar (like in juice) or a carbo load without much veggies/proteins to accompany it, make me feel.


I was actually afraid of this sugar in college...to a fault. It would make me feel sick throughout the day into the next. Some of this sick feeling was mental — being so disgusted with myself for putting something so unnatural into my body — but a lot of it was physical, too. I’d feel sluggish, have tummy aches, and just not feel like myself. My digestion would be completely disrupted, partly because my body didn’t like it and partly because I was so stressed about what I ate. I’d get headaches and sleep horribly.


While it has been a journey for me to find a healthy balance with this hyper-focus of what I put in my body, I can finally say it is also something that makes me powerful. I am in control. I can choose exactly what goes into my body and how it makes me feel, both mentally and physically. Instead of allowing guilt and stress to take over, I instead focus on the foods that energize me and make me feel great. That slight shift in focus is what has helped me strike that balance. And is what lead me to my career as a professional chef. Food is joy, and my mission is to spread education and healthy habits to ignite that joy.



A Society Built on Unnatural Sugars - Discovering the Prevalence of GD


Box of generic cereal

Unfortunately in our consumerist society, people, moms, babies and families are encouraged to eat unnatural, harmful sugars on a regular basis. These unnatural sugars run rampant in most processed foods we buy, hidden in plain sight. Most individuals don't know where these sugars are hiding and also don't realize how much these sugars may be attributing to their pains and sicknesses. Seemingly harmless foods like morning cereals, lunch salad dressings, PB Crackers snacks, and pre-made dinners all contain a harmful amounts of unnatural sugar — it’s never ending in our daily foods and its leading to serious consequences.


One such serious consequence, specifically for women, is gestational diabetes. When I learned that about 8.3% of pregnant women have gestational diabetes (GD) (1), which is about 304,000 women (in 2021) per year and RISING (2), that meant that I likely had many friends who had had GD during their pregnancy. Sure enough, as I asked around, I was able to find 5 friends in only a couple of days who experienced GD! It is shockingly common. Furthermore, these were women who considered themselves healthy eaters and were not expected to be diabetic.



A Shift in Focus: From Personal Fear to Helping Others


Pregnant woman sitting on edge of bed holding a bowl of veggies

In that discovery moment, I knew it was time to shift my focus and efforts as a nutritional chef to this topic that was affecting both friends and family, and that seemed to have little support outside of the doctor's office. My immediate new mission became to (1) ensure my future pregnant friends are truly healthy and strong during their pregnancy (and in their life) and (2) ensure that babies are born with a fighting chance to be the healthiest they can possibly be.


Nowadays, researchers have recognized that many cases of gestational diabetes are actually undiagnosed pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, meaning we can’t just point our finger at placental hormones or gestational weight gain in every case. In addition, a baby’s blood sugar levels are a direct reflection of the mother’s (3). This means that without the proper management, the baby has a higher likelihood of being born with blood sugar complications as well as becoming diabetic early in their lifetime.


Though GD may seem like a problem that only affects the time immediately during or after birth, we now know that these babies can have altered metabolism for life! In addition, children of mothers with gestational diabetes face a 6-fold higher risk of blood sugar problems and obesity by the time they are teenagers. (3) Often, the baby is also born too large, which can make the delivery of the baby even scarier, more drastic or more complicated.



Carise - Our Friend Who Wishes She Had Had Better Education From Day 1


Just yesterday, I spoke again with my friend Carise. She is a nurse practitioner and therefore works in the medical industry. Ideally, someone like her would have a solid grasp of the impacts of carbohydrates and nutrition for a pregnant woman and her baby. Surprisingly, she explained that there is a deficit of nutritional education in the medical industry, and that patients and professionals don’t have great access to information on why it’s so important to keep your blood sugar levels in control.


Carise felt lost when it came to controlling her fasting sugars. She wished she had been better guided from the start - at the beginning of her pregnancy but then especially when she was diagnosed with GD. She longed for GD-friendly snack ideas, appropriate workouts and exercise routines to help manage GD, and easy savory breakfasts to keep fasting numbers low. She also expressed a need for more education on how this would affect her pregnancy as well as her baby. If she had known the real impact at the beginning of pregnancy, she says she would have paid more attention to what she was eating and been more motivated to make the behavior changes needed, possibly even avoiding a GD diagnosis altogether. My heart was heavy when she explained that her high blood sugars affected her baby girl, and she wished those birth complications had been avoided with better education.


Let’s not let this happen, ladies.


The statistics revealing how common this story is are staggering. Research now shows that for many of these cases, blood sugar was actually already elevated before the person got pregnant (3), which means there's an opportunity not only to help women manage a gestational diabetes diagnosis, but also possibly prevent a diagnosis with earlier intervention. With this knowledge, I am determined to redirect my hyper-awareness of what we eat and how it affects our body into helping the large amount of women who struggle with what to eat while pregnant . In turn, I hope to help women prevent and manage gestational diabetes by guiding them towards a low-glucose, high-protein/fat/fiber diet. I aim to educate, guide behavior changes, and instill long-lasting eating habits that benefit the woman and the larger family she supports, so that they may all thrive beyond the pregnancy. I’m directing my 20+ years of cooking healthy foods - for world champion athletes, high paying executives, top tier weddings, and myself - towards helping the next generation of babies born lead a healthy, happy and long life with healthy and thriving parents, too.



Empowerment Through Awareness - The Misconception of 'Healthy' Foods


If there’s anything I’ve learned so far in this Julienne journey, it is that knowledge is power. So much of our society has detrimental marketing - telling people that Raisin Bran is a healthy breakfast, that you should start your day off with a big bowl of Quaker Oats, and that if you get GD it has nothing to do with you.


It actually has a lot to do with you and what you eat — but sadly the foods offered in our society don’t tell us about the negative health effects of what we’re eating. And we don’t want to be told that being diagnosed with GD is our fault, because a big chunk of it isn’t our fault. We’re feeding our bodies what we've been told is 'healthy', when in fact these 'healthy' foods have been slowly pushing our bodies towards a pre-diabetic state...without us even knowing it. We have the best intentions when buying groceries, thinking we’re being healthy and smart, but thanks to marketing it's become increasingly difficult to discern what is actually healthy and what is not, and what can be significantly harmful over time.


The big picture is that pre-made or processed foods often contain unwanted additives. Additionally, eating sweet breakfasts, sweet salad dressings, or sugar coated salmon for dinner is not helpful to our body (yes - you’d be surprised at how often your protein at dinner has added cane sugar on top!). We have to move towards whole foods, fresh ingredients, and getting comfortable and confident with reading all labels. For instance, you could sub out that cane sugar with some antimicrobial, nutrient-dense honey. Once you know what to lookout for, it becomes easier to manage. I promise!


A Tip For Today:


Your typical peanut butter is crammed with sugar. An apple with Jiffy or Skippy’s peanut butter for a snack is not, I repeat not, good for our blood sugar or our health. When this is all you eat for a snack, the sugars go directly into your blood stream straining your insulin and begin attacking other parts of your body (your brain = headache, your heart = not breathing or sleeping well, your liver = not being able to digest your food properly, your fat cells = unnecessary weight gain).


Instead, buy peanut butter or a nut or seed butter that’s unsweetened, such as Spread The Love NAKED Organic Peanut Butter, Justin’s Almond Butter, or Artisana Organics Raw Cashew Butter. Period. Then, pair it with your apple or any of your fruit and you’ll be empowered. If it’s not sweet enough for your taste, give it 3 days and you’ll learn to like it. Or, embrace the contrast of savory + sweet! And next time you eat sweetened peanut butter, your body will shudder from too much sugar and you’ll back away, proud of yourself.


Remember: Your growing baby’s preferences for healthy foods are partly formed in utero. Yes, your baby can “taste” what you’re eating via your amniotic fluid. (3) So give them the gift of not needing excess sugar from the moment you cut the umbilical cord!



My Commitment to Change


Anja sitting on a table legs crossed holding a cookbook smiling at the camera

The good news is that knowledge is power. For me, this knowledge has not only given me power but the ultimate motivation to help my pregnant friends like you and the generations to come. I’m all-in. I’m dedicating all day everyday to learning, reading, hearing from people who have had GD, and working with experts in the field. I’m determined to empower pregnant women to start day 1 of their pregnancy with the right information so that they can ensure they are giving their own body and that of their baby the gift of health.


And health can taste great. I’ll prove it!!





 

Julienne Meal Program Guide cover page

Ready to embrace a healthier pregnancy journey? 

Dive into our Julienne Meal Plan designed for managing gestational diabetes or get started with our free GD Snack Guide & Helpful Tips. Your path to joyful and empowered eating begins here.




 

(3) Real Food for Pregnancy, Lily Nichols

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