If you’ve been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), you no doubt want to do everything you can to stay as healthy and symptom-free as possible. You’re probably wondering if changing your diet might be a good move.
“Is there a ‘best’ diet for MS? The honest answer is that we don’t know,” says Ben Thrower, M.D., senior medical advisor for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and medical director of the Andrew C. Carlos MS Institute at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia. “Big picture, there are no specific foods that have been shown to be good or bad for MS.”
There is lots of research looking into how certain ways of eating may positively impact the course of MS in individual patients, however. A review of studies found that three factors are important when it comes to stopping MS progression: reducing inflammation, protecting against neurodegeneration and repairing the damage MS does to the nervous system. Which foods could help accomplish these goals? Because MS is a disease that has such a specific impact on different people, it’s important to experiment and explore. Let’s take a deeper dive into the evidence, so you can try an eating strategy that might work uniquely to make you feel better.
What are the most popular MS diet plans?
A quick Google search will show you a number of food plans that are supposed to help reduce MS symptoms like fatigue. The problem is that a lot of these diets are too nutritionally limited.
“You can find some very restrictive diets targeted to people with MS,” says Lauren Gluck, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY. “Overall, these diets are not well validated. Not enough people who used them were studied overall, and specifically not enough people were studied across different ages, sexes and ethnic groups. I tend not to recommend them. If you do decide to follow a restrictive diet, be sure to focus on getting enough nutrients and calories and check if you are feeling well. Plus, be sure to share information about the diet with your MS treatment team.”
Here’s what the research on some of the most popular diet plans shows:
The Mediterranean Diet is well-known for its great effect on heart health. When it comes to MS benefits, there may be some key benefits to giving it a try. Studies have shown that because the diet is high in good fat, low in saturated fats and salt, and high in fruits and vegetables it may have a benefit when it comes to brain health, and that too may make an impact on slowing neurodegeneration for MS patients.
This Paleolithic-based plan has three levels, is gluten and dairy-free, and involves periods of fasting. Unexpected foods like raw meat, seaweed, and organ meats take the place of grains. Other factors are also added in addition to the diet aspect of this philosophy. “This is a combination of diet, exercise, and stress management,” explains Dr. Thrower. “Research has suggested a decrease in fatigue for those following the protocol. A recent study looked at blood markers of inflammation in people with MS doing intermittent fasting–it showed a decrease in these markers. Whether these lab findings would translate into clinical benefits is not known, however.”
Founded over thirty years ago, the Swank diet is extremely low-fat, to the point where even a hamburger or two ounces of cheese is purported to reverse any benefits from it. That theory is linked to the finding that saturated fat can worsen MS symptoms because it causes inflammation. Obesity is also thought to be a contributing factor to both the cause of MS and the flaring of its symptoms, again due to its link to inflammation in your system.
This plan is also very low-fat, with an emphasis on starchy veggies, and no animal products or oil whatsoever. It has been shown to have some potential positive impact on MS-related fatigue and also helps patients lose weight, but research showing any more specific or proven benefits is still ongoing.
Are there general rules to follow when deciding what to eat when you have MS?
As a rule, with balanced eating, you can’t go wrong. “People with MS, and many people in general, tend to feel better when eating a diet with more fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fats, lean meats and fish, legumes, beans, and whole grains, with less processed foods, red meat, sodium, and refined sugar,” says Dr. Gluck. “This can help reduce fatigue, brain fog, and pain, and may benefit long-term brain health. These food patterns are also part of many heart-healthy diets that reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes, and overall inflammation. Since we know that people with MS who have additional cardiovascular disease have worse MS disease, it's possible that some of these recommendations help MS by helping the rest of the body stay healthy.”
What should people with MS avoid?
“I recommend eating more nutritious food over taking a ton of nutritional/vitamin supplements unless you are specifically deficient in a vitamin,” says Dr. Gluck. “I also advise against juicing for meal replacements. Juicing removes the beneficial fiber and many nutrients of fruits and vegetables and just leaves the carbohydrates and sugars.”
However, it’s important to know that having MS won’t force you to avoid all the foods you love. “It doesn't mean you can't have a piece of cake or a steak once in a while,” Dr. Gluck adds. Two simple tips to make healthy daily changes: “Add a vegetable to every meal, and cut out sugary beverages like soda and juice,” she suggests.
Bottom line: Do what works for you.
"It’s hard to find dietary rules that would apply to everyone with MS," Dr. Thrower sums up. Eat a healthy daily diet – then tweak. Introduce new foods into your routine, and see how you feel. If you detect a decrease in your symptoms or feel like you have more energy, you may have found a food that’s acting as medicine for you.
Keeping a food diary can be very helpful, noting when you try a new food and how many times you consume it before you notice any change in how you feel. Keep your doctors informed about any changes you notice – and look at trying new foods as a handy tool in your self-care kit. You know your body best – keep doing what works for you!
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