Nutritious Fats in Mom's Diet May Minimize Autism Risk

Pregnancy News

Obie Editorial Team

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Gaining weight during pregnancy leaves many mothers-to-be shunning oils and other foods high in fat. Recent study findings published in the June 27 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, however, suggests a modest intake of certain "healthy" fats may be beneficial to the baby's brain development during the last stage of pregnancy. The study hints at the possibility that a diet that includes nutritious fats may reduce the baby's risk of developing autism.

The survey study involved:

  • 317 mothers of autistic children
  • 7,728 mothers with no autistic children
  • 5,884 of them completed the dietary survey during pregnancy. The remaining participants completed it within the first year after pregnancy

Study participants were asked to describe what they ate during pregnancy. Of particular note were study findings on:

  • Linoleic acids (omega-6 fatty acids) - occur naturally in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. Women enjoying a diet rich in linoleic acid were found to be 34% less likely to have an autistic child than those who consumed less of the nutrient.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids - abundant in fish. Mothers regularly consuming fish rich in this nutrient were more likely to have healthy children than women who consumed very low levels of it during pregnancy. Women who ate the least omega-3s were 53% more likely to have an autistic child than those who ate more.
  • Mercury, often found in fish, is a concern for many expectant mothers but the March of Dimes gives the OK to herring, salmon, and sardines for minimum mercury exposure. The foundation recommends up to 12 ounces per week of fish high in omega-3s. That's just three 4-ounce servings per week.
  • Nutritious oils include olive, canola, and soybean oils that are great for sauteeing meats and veggies and form the base for nutritious salad dressings that can be made quickly and easily at home. Nuts and seeds are most nutritious when eaten raw but cooking does not reduce the amount of fat that occurs naturally in them.

Try this dinner salad recipe three times a week before and during pregnancy:

  • Lots of leafy greens
  • Two or three of your favorite fresh veggies
  • Salmon, sardines, or herring
  • Sesame or sunflower seeds or chopped pecans or walnuts
  • Salad dressing made with healthy oils

Inexpensive canned fish is sold everywhere and has the added nutritional value of edible bones and cartilage that supply much-needed calcium and other bone-building minerals.


  • Kristen Lyall, Kassandra L. Munger, √Čilis J. O'Reilly, Susan L. Santangelo, and Alberto Ascherio. Maternal Dietary Fat Intake in Association With Autism Spectrum Disorders Am. J. Epidemiol. First published online June 27, 2013 doi:10.1093/aje/kws433