Following a diet high in fat and sugar can increase the risk of preterm birth, a new study says.LyndaSanchez/Flickr

Maternal eating habits before pregnancy also have a strong influence on birth outcomes. Following a diet high in fat and sugar can increase the risk of preterm birth, a new study says.

Regular consumption of these unhealthy foods increased the risk of having a premature baby by 50 percent.

For the study, researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia monitored eating habits of 309 women, for 12 months before they conceived. Women in the study followed three types of diets- diet high in protein (fruits, fish, meat, whole grains, chicken); high in fat and sugar (take away foods, potato chips, refined grains) and lastly a diet rich with whole grains, vegetables and legumes.

Inclusion of more fruits and protein into the diet lowered risk of preterm birth considerably.

"In our study, women who ate protein-rich foods including lean meats, fish and chicken, as well as fruit, whole grains and vegetables, had significantly lower risk of preterm birth. On the other hand, women who consumed mainly discretionary foods, such as takeaway, potato chips, cakes, biscuits, and other foods high in saturated fat and sugar were more likely to have babies born preterm," lead author of the paper, Dr Jessica Grieger, from the Robinson Research Institute in the University of Adelaide, said in a news release. "It is important to consume a healthy diet before as well as during pregnancy to support the best outcomes for the mum and baby."

Previous studies on animals have found similar effects. A 2012 study published in the FASEB Journal found that maternal eating habits brought chemical changes in the mother's DNA that she later transferred to her children. The process called epigenetics was thought to help improve studies related to obesity, diabetes, cancer and immune disorders.

A full time pregnancy consists of 40 weeks. Babies born before 37 weeks of gestational age are considered to be premature babies. Efforts to prevent early birth have been on from a long time as premature birth can increase the risk of many health problems in children including cerebral palsy, breathing, respiratory, feeding, or digestive problems and intellectual disabilities.

The findings, published in The Journal of Nutrition, are particularly important as the number of babies being born preterm is steadily increasing in India. Around 3.6 million babies are born prematurely in India, contributing to 23.6 percent of the 15 million pre-term births around the world. Apart from that, nearly 3, 00,000 preterm babies die every year from various complications caused by the early birth.