One way pregnant mothers might be able to ward off autism

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten quite a few female patients who see me simply to manage their weight during pregnancy. This is something that didn’t really happen before–which suggests a recent change to the whole pregnancy zeitgeist.

I can’t really say what’s behind it. Perhaps it’s the current obsession with celebrity baby bumps. Or maybe expectant mothers are just trying harder to stay healthy in an increasingly heavy world. (I’m hoping it’s the second one.)

But either way, it’s an interesting trend–one I can actually get on board with (and obviously already have)… especially in the light of the research I want to share with you today.

It brings together two areas of health I’m very passionate about. (Well, make that three.)

The first is of course, obesity. The second is the enormous rise in autism. And the third is the disconnect so many people have between the state of their health and the food they eat.

According to this latest research, the amount of weight a pregnant woman gains may affect her risk of having an autistic child. In fact, two separate studies revealed a modest-but-significant link between maternal weight gain and autism risk. (Interestingly, pre-pregnancy weight was not a factor.)

Yet, the authors still go out of their way to say women should not try to limit weight gain during pregnancy on the basis of this study.

Well, okay. But what exactly should they do with these findings, then?

When will researchers have the cojones to make some recommendations based on their own conclusions? No one wants to see pregnant mothers on Slim Fast. But surely, we owe women more guidance than this.

Today’s doctors have become like automatons. All in a desperate effort to better fit into a broken system that cares more about insurance companies than it does about patients.

Well, I’m sorry, but I am not a “provider.” I am a doctor–who studied long and hard to get this degree. And how dare an insurance company or any other entity try to take that away from me–or my patients?

I don’t usually get this heated up over a title. But at this point in history, if doctors don’t draw the line in the sand and stand up for what they know is right, I fear for what will come next.

For now, though, let’s get back to the issue at hand.

The exact reasons behind this elevated autism risk are obviously unclear. Any number of factors could be at work here–from hormone imbalances to maternal age.

But these findings are certainly enough for me to be paying much more attention to the amount of weight my patients gain during pregnancy.

Admittedly, this is a tricky issue to tackle. So yes, I can understand these researchers’ hesitation, even if I don’t agree with their non-advice.

On the one hand, a healthy pregnancy requires weight gain–and not necessarily a small amount, either. That’s not negotiable. So needless, to say, it’s not the time to go on a “diet.”

On the other hand, there’s no better time to start paying closer attention to how and what you eat. And eating right is arguably even more important during those nine months.

So what’s a mother to do? Instead of obsessing over meaningless calorie counts and numbers on the scale, step back and survey the quality of your food instead.

Fresh, whole, unprocessed food isn’t “diet” food. It’s real food that everyone should be eating. Especially expectant mothers.

You should also stay as active as you can–even if you’re only walking. (Though as a general rule of thumb, most activities that you enjoyed before you were pregnant are perfectly safe to continue when you’re carrying a baby–running, yoga, you name it.)

In short: Make thoughtful choices. And let your body do what it needs to do.

It’s funny. Humans have a way of knowing what’s best for them if they simply choose to listen to their bodies. Call it mother’s intuition–but that’s especially true for pregnant women.

“Maternal prenatal weight gain and autism spectrum disorders.” Pediatrics. 2013 Nov;132(5):e1276-83.
Pregnancy Weight Gain May Influence Autism Risk. Medscape. Oct 31, 2013.