Diet and Nutrition
Is there an ideal diet for MS? The answer is both simple and complicated.
When diagnosed with MS, you might be wondering what kinds of foods are good for you, which you should avoid, which diet will have the biggest impact on your MS, or which will best help you control your weight.
These are excellent questions to ask yourself, as a healthy diet is integral to your overall health. However, if you are wondering about the ideal diet for MS, the answer is both simple and complicated.
Let's start with the simple part: no single diet has been shown to alter the MS disease process.
The complicated part is this: there is a lot of research being conducted to look at specific diets, intermittent fasting, the role of gut bacteria, and the role of certain supplements such as Vitamin D. However, there are few definitive answers yet.
What We Know About Diet
Until we have a clearer understanding on the "best MS diet," we can focus on what we do know. A lot has been learned about the effects of other conditions, known as comorbidities, on MS.
- Vascular conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, can contribute to progression in MS and may even contribute to earlier mortality.
- MS symptoms, such as fatigue, bladder issues, or constipation, can be more severe when your diet has low nutritional value. Poor diet plus these MS setbacks can contribute to other conditions, like obesity and osteoporosis.
A healthful diet can prevent or manage comorbidities, and contribute to your overall wellbeing.
Nutrition for People with MS
Given this information, the best nutrition recommendations for people with MS include:
- Plenty of fresh, colorful fruits and vegetable
- More fish and plant-based protein than meats
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Whole grains that have plenty of natural fiber
- Plenty of non-caffeinated liquids
- Limited saturated fats (the type that come from meats), refined sugar, and salt
This balanced, heart-healthy diet is high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fluids. It promotes overall health, helps lessen the severity of MS symptoms, and reduces your risk of other health conditions that can worsen your MS and shorten your lifespan.
Over the years, many diets have been promoted to treat or manage MS.
Unfortunately, testing them in high-quality, controlled studies has been extremely difficult because most people find it very challenging to stick with a diet rigorously enough to allow scientific testing.
Recently, however, the Wahls elimination diet and the low-fat Swank diet were compared in a clinical trial. Both diets were found after three months to reduce fatigue and improve quality of life in people with relapsing-remitting MS.
This high-quality study shows that a healthy diet is one strategy for improving function in MS.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important in a number of ways, helping you:
- Reduce your risk of disease progression
- Improve your overall health
- Add years to your life
- Promote healthy bowel and bladder function
- Reduce your fatigue
However, MS fatigue and mobility problems can make it tougher to maintain a healthy body weight.
Physical activity in combination with a healthy, well-balanced diet is an optimal strategy for maintaining a healthy weight.
When repeated dieting doesn’t lead to success, or exercising feels too exhausting to even contemplate, it can be incredibly discouraging. A dietary professional and physical therapist can help!
Diet specialists can help you identify the right nutrition goals for you, then suggest foods, portion sizes, and other ideas to meet your dietary needs.
Physical therapists can recommend an exercise program that fits with your abilities. They can also show you ways to adapt physical activities or sports you enjoy or identify new activities to try.
How To Introduce Healthier Eating Into Your Life
Eating a healthy diet isn’t always easy, nor is it everyone’s taste. Here are ideas to figure out how to make it work for you.
Barriers to Healthy Eating With MS
When MS causes you to feel fatigued, depressed, or stressed, cooking a nutritious meal may be the last thing you want to do. Whether it's MS symptoms or other obstacles, you can overcome them with the tips below.
With food prices increasing, you may feel like you can't afford healthy foods. You might be surprised at the ways you can eat healthfully and keep costs low!
- Buy in bulk. This is especially useful for canned goods, non-perishables, and frozen foods.
- Canned fruits and veggies can be healthy, but stay clear of ones packed in salt, syrup, or extra sugars.
- Non-perishables might include grains, dried fruits, nut butters, or beans. Remember, keep an eye on added salts and sugars!
- Frozen foods are the hidden gem of healthy eating! Frozen veggies can be as tasty and healthy as fresh, at a much lower cost. You can turn them into soups, stir-fries, or a simple side. Frozen fruit makes a delicious addition to smoothies, yogurt, and oatmeal.
- Choose your brands carefully. Watch out for packaged goods that are marketed as "healthy" but actually contain loads of sugar or processed carbs. There's no need to pay a high cost for fancy foods with few health benefits.
- Eliminate unnecessary waste.
- Leftovers can be your best friend! You save energy by meal-prepping just once, and you reduce cost by eliminating waste.
- When buying fresh, aim to buy just what you need. It's best for you, the environment, and your wallet when you don't have good food go bad in your fridge.
It's not uncommon to have a distaste for veggies, fish, and whole grains. Like changing any other habit, it helps to start with small steps.
- Try adding one green vegetable per day.
- Try "Meatless Mondays," or create your own version by serving fish or a plant-based protein once a week.
- Try new ways of cooking. Search online for things like "colorful veggie dinner," "how to cook fish," or "whole grain recipes" to see what healthy recipes others have created.
- Invite your family to participate. Perhaps each family member can suggest one new food to try every week.
Start gradually and give yourself a chance to get used to the taste of these new foods. Like so many other people, you might find you really enjoy these new, diverse flavors!
Cultural norms are among the toughest food habits to change, particularly since those changes often require the cooperation of family and friends.
- Consider adapting your traditional recipes in healthful ways. A nutritionist or dietitian can help with this, or search for healthy ingredient swaps online.
- Explain to your family why you’re looking to alter your diet. It's the first step to getting them on board with your efforts!
- Know that you don't need to change everything! Even reducing your fats, sugars, starches, and red meat for some meals every week will make a big difference.
MS fatigue, the heat in the kitchen, mobility problems, among other things, can make shortcuts seem like lifesavers. You may feel too tired to cook, and it's easier just to microwave some prepared foods.
- Often, prepared foods are high in sodium and artificial ingredients. Plus, they can be expensive!
- Meal-prepping and eating leftovers can be healthier alternatives.
An occupational therapist can show you how to simplify your shopping and cooking in ways that save energy and money.
When feeling down, many people reach for comfort foods. If you're eating as a coping tool, the trick is to recognize your triggers and arm yourself with healthy snacks you enjoy.
Dietitians and nutritionists can point you to recipes and snack foods that are high in healthy nutrients.
Where to Begin
The final barrier to eating a healthier diet is simply not knowing where to start. Your healthcare team can help!
A registered dietitian or licensed nutritionist can help you with dietary choices and affordable meal planning. An occupational therapist can offer tips and tools to simplify meal prep and cooking. And a mental health professional can help with emotional and cultural factors that may complicate your best-laid plans.
Read More From the Can Do MS Library
- Integrating Nutrition into Your Toolkit
- Strategies for Healthy and Effective Meal Prep
- Emotions, Nutrition, and MS
- Don't Weight for Wellness
Go In-Depth With Webinar Recordings
Explore Additional Resources
- MyPlate.gov - Guide to building healthy eating habits (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
- Weight Management and Nutrition – Webinar recording brought to you by the National MS Society and Can Do MS
- EatRight.org – Online search tool to locate registered dietician nutritionists (RDNs) (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)
- Dietary Studies in MS - Overview of research studies conducted on diets for MS (National MS Society)
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