The Harvard School of Public Health found in a recent study published in the June 27 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology that pregnant women eating a diet that is rich in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid which is found in vegetable oils, seeds and nuts, will lower the risk of having an autistic child by 34 percent.
Women who also consumed very low levels of the omega-3 fatty acids were 53% more likely to have an autistic child. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish. This was in comparison to pregnant women who ate normal amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
The study concluded that increasing the intake of omega-6 fatty acids lowered the risk of autism spectrum disorder. And decreasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids increased the risk of autism spectrum disorder.
It is important to note that the study only found an association and not a cause and effect link, between the consumption of fatty-acids during pregnancy and a decrease risk of having a child with autism. The study was too small to draw any broad conclusions. Additional research is needed to confirm the results.
The scientists don’t know the reason for this linkage. It is known that these two fatty acids have proven to be critical to the formation and development of the brain of the fetus. During the end of the pregnancy, the fetus uses these fatty acids to complete development. Newborns use these same two fatty acids during their first two months of life.
The official recommendation from the March of Dimes states that pregnant women should consume about 200 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per day. This is in the form of Ducosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Five ounces of salmon provides 2,100 milligrams of DHA. One serving of salmon a week meets the March of Dimes recommendation.
Even though mercury in fish is a major concern during pregnancy, salmon, sardines and herring tend to be low in mercury. The March of Dimes says that pregnant women can safely eat up to 12 ounces of these fish each week. The March of Dimes also notes that many nuts and vegetable oils (e.g. olive oil, soybean oil and canola oil) can be substituted as sources of healthy fatty acids.
The study followed 317 mothers who had an autistic child and 17,728 mothers who had children without autism. The women answered a survey about the foods they ate. 5,884 women completed the survey during their pregnancy and the rest completed it within a year of being pregnant.
The researchers did not find any evidence that consuming high amounts of the omega-3 fatty acids further lowered the risk of autism. This is in comparison to women consuming normal amounts of this fatty acid.
This suggests there is a threshold for the amount of omega-3 fatty acid consumption that can be reached, beyond which there is no further benefits in consuming more.
The study also took into account other autism risk factors, such as, mother’s age, smoking status during pregnancy and the mother’s total caloric intake. Even so, there may be other factors not considered in this study that can further explain the link.
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