The autism rate in the U.S. has risen to one in 88 — up from one in 110 just a few years earlier.  The disorder can run the spectrum from mildly impaired social connection, repetitive behavior to virtual isolation from the world.  While cures and causes remain elusive, significant research points to one contributing factor that is within our control: Obesity.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at over 1,000 children (two-thirds with autism, one-third without) both genders, ages 2 to 5 years old.  When researchers matched these profiles against maternal health history, they found that obese mothers were more than 60% more likely to have a child with autism – and more than twice as likely to have children with developmental disorders, particularly in speech.  The study’s authors emphasize that autistic risk may stem from many factors, including older parental age, malnutrition and premature births. But what affects the mother’s body affects the sensitive, developing fetal brain – and the metabolic impact of obesity are manifold, including increased inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar and hormonal variations.

The autism/obesity link is just the latest in an ever-growing body of research showing that fitter pregnancies benefit both mother and child.  Being overweight or obese, for example, increases the risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, congenital malformations and miscarriage. “Eating for two” is one thing, but if that pregnancy diet includes a surfeit of high-fat foods, mothers may alter their offspring’s palate, increasing a later propensity for junk food, and thus a child’s chances of becoming heavy later in life. By contrast, eating more produce will not only help with pregnancy weight management, but might also lower a woman’s chances of giving birth to a child with leukemia.  And according to preliminary research coming out of the North Carolina Research Campus, a maternal diet high in choline may increase memory and mental function in offspring over a lifetime

Published April 1, 2014