7 MS Diets – The Low Down

We all know that eating a nutritious diet is important whether you have MS or not, and it is just as important to be mindful of the things that you avoid as those that you choose to eat.

It might not seem important to use your diet to manage your MS symptoms being that MS is a disease of the nervous system, but research has indicated that your gut (and consequently your eating habits) can have a massive impact on the progression of your disease and the number and severity of your relapses. One particular piece of research published in Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry in 2019 indicated that people with food allergies tended to have more frequent relapses than those without allergies. Furthermore, a study published in 2015 in Nutritional Neuroscience found that those with MS who ate a very balanced and low fat/sugar diet tended to have higher physical and mental health.

This is all well and good, but there is no well established diet recommended for people with MS. In fact, there are several diets out there advertised as diets specific for people with the disease and all seem to have conflicting protocols to follow. This can be really confusing… especially if you are new to MS.

At the moment there isn’t any conclusive evidence that following any one of these particular diets will improve someone’s MS symptoms (this is a consequence of small study sizes and the variability of the disease and the disease population, as well as other factors such as lifestyle and wellness activities which confuse results) but people have reported that following one of these diets does lead to improved quality of life and reduced relapses for them.

I am going to summarise some of the known diets here, but following one of these diets is ultimately a personal choice. I am not a medical practitioner and I do not support any single one of these diets myself. What I would say (as a scientist) is that it’s really important to mKe sure that you get a balanced diet, with enough energy to keep you going and that you still have access to all of the essential vitamins and minerals.

The other thing I would say as a caveat before changing your diet dramatically is to speak to your GP, a nutritionist, or your MS nurse and see if they have any specific advice for you. This is particularly important if you have any other health conditions that might impact on how you need to control your diet (for example diabetes).

So below is the summary of these diets  – do you follow any of them specifically? I would love to hear from you if you do. Reach out to me and let me know!

The Best Bet Diet

This diet was developed  by Ashton Embry who has developed the hypothesis that MS is caused by ‘leaky gut syndrome’. He suggests that in these people, the intestines become leaky and food proteins are able to leak into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, he proposes that the immune system sees them as foreign and creates antibodies against them. In his theory, the leaky proteins are similar to myelin, and the antibodies created against the leaky food proteins mean that the body starts to also attack myelin in a case of mistaken identity.

There are two main parts to the Best Bet Diet (1) avoid problematic foods (2) take supplements.

The idea is to avoid ‘problem foods’ that might have a similar structure to myelin and therefore be able to mimic myelin. The diet also suggests that you take allergy and intolerance tests and cut out anything else that you could raise an immune response to – for example gluten or dairy.

In this diet, typical problem foods that you are asked to cut out include:

  1. Dairy
  2. Gluten
  3. Eggs
  4. Refined sugar (honey and maple syrup is ok)
  5. Soybeans, beans, peas and peanuts
  6. Red meat

The diet also recommends a number of supplements to take (I think that there are about 20 in total on the list). This could be a pretty expensive diet to follow, and you could start rattling like a pill pot. Amongst some of the supplements to take, the diet recommends Vitamin D, Calcium and Magnesium.

As with the other diets that I write about, this diet does not have any research supporting the benefits of its use in MS. Research does not suggest that cutting out whole food groups, or taking supplements in place of food to be beneficial. There have been reports from MSers who use this diet that it works well for them though, and a very small trial in 2006 indicated that there may be less disability and decline in people following this diet compared to a ‘full balanced diet’ but the study is probably too small to draw any real conclusions.

Things to consider if you want to follow this diet:

  • It can be quite hard to achieve a balanced diet with this particular diet
  • A large number of supplements are recommended (about 20 in total) and this can be expensive and potentially prohibitive
  • ALWAYS speak to your doctor before you follow any new diet

Gluten – Free Diet

The gluten free diet is actually a bit of a trend at the moment. You might see all of the gluten free items in the shops and advertised in cafes and restaurants.  A gluten free diet was traditionally for people with an intolerance or allergy to gluten (or for people with Coeliacs Disease).

This diet avoids all of the foods that contain gluten, the major protein that helps food to keep its shape by giving it elasticity and texture. It is the substance that lets bread rise and provides the springy feeling. You can find gluten in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten is completely safe for the majority of people, but should be avoided if you have a sensitivity or you coeliacs disease.

There are LOADS of foods that you would never consider to even contain gluten and so this diet can be incredibly restrictive if you do not need to follow it. However there are lots of naturally gluten free foods including

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Fruit and Veg
  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Lentils

However, unless you buy specific gluten free items from the store, pasta, bread, crackers and a lot of ready made meals and sauces all contain gluten.

There is no evidence at present that there is a connection between gluten sensitivity and MS, or that following a diet without gluten can reduce symptoms in MS. Having said this, there is no reason why you might not have both conditions – I have a friend who has coeliacs disease, diabetes and MS.

Things to consider if you want to follow this diet:

  • Following a gluten free diet should not cause any deficiencies as long as the gluten free alternatives follow a balanced diet
  • Gluten free alternatives can contain more salt, sugar and fat than their gluten containing counterparts
  • Gluten free alternatives can be more expensive
  • ALWAYS ask your healthcare provider before swapping on to a new diet

McDougall Diet

McDougall is an American physician who who believes that degenerative diseases, such as MS, can be reversed and prevented with a low fat, plant-based whole foods diet. He suggests that the rich, processed Westernised diet has contributed to the rise in chronic illnesses. He has himself suffered a stroke, and believes that a big contributing factor to this was eating large quantities of animal products and processed foods.

This diet is pretty much a vegan, low fat, high carb diet. The typical foods that are included in the diet are are starch based foods like potatoes, rice, and beans, and lots of green and yellow vegetables, and fruit. Meat, dairy and oils are not permitted in the diet at all, and sugar and salt are limited to small quantities.

There is no evidence that this diet is effective for MS but in the short term might lead to some weight loss, lower cholesterol and maybe blood pressure. Long term effects haven’t been studied. Being that this is a vegan diet, there are things to consider

Things to consider if you want to follow this diet:

  • Due to limiting dairy you may end up deficient in calcium and vitamin D
  • Due to limiting meat, you may end up deficient in iron and vitamin B12
  • Cutting down on meat and dairy may mean that you are eating too little protein (find alternative sources such as beans and lentils, fish and white meat)
  • You may end up deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids. You can supplement these from flaxseed or fish oil – if you are supplementing with cod liver oil ensure that you are careful if you have a clotting disease as this has blood thinning properties
  • ALWAYS ask your healthcare provider before swapping on to a new diet

Mediterranean Diet

This diet is a healthy and well balanced diet focused on whole grains (bread/pasta/rice) and a lot of fruit and vegetables. Imagine the food wheel that you studied when you were at school – this is pretty much the Med Diet. Eating low saturated fatty foods and low fat dairy, olive oil, and with drinking water are big components of this diet.

Unlike some of the other diets, red meat is not excluded, although there is a suggestion that it should be limited to small quantities in preference for fish and white meat. A big bonus of this diet is that small quantities of red wine is encouraged due to the anti-oxidant properties (BINGO).

There are aspects of this diet that have been really well studied, and it is well known that the Med Diet does benefit the heart, limit the probability of heart diseases and may even prevent some types of cancer. It has been suggested that this diet may increase chances of living healthier to an older age. There has been limited research in relation to MS, but in general this diet is a really good one to follow whether you have MS or not. The whole diet is well balanced and contains all of the vitamins and minerals that are needed.

Overcoming MS Diet

This is a diet that I am probably most familiar with myself as I try and follow some (I am no purist – I personally do not think that is healthy but that’s my opinion) of the OMS regime.

The OMS diet was developed by Dr George Jelinek in the 90s after he was diagnosed with MS himself. In fairness it is not just a diet, if you access their website or read the book, you will see that it is a whole lifestyle combining exercise, meditation, vitamin D and medications. Dr Jelinek makes recommendations for a predominantly vegan diet with the inclusion of seafood, and there are some similarities to those recommended by the Swank Diet (see below). He suggests limiting dairy, meat, and saturated fat.

Shellfish is pretty big in the OMS diet and I myself am allergic – so I have supplemented this on occasion with chicken or white fish. As with the majority of the MS diets, there is no conclusive research into the diet to show whether this is effective. However, following this diet is unlikely to be bad for you. One thing that you will need to consider is that you are getting plenty of protein from alternative sources such as pulses, beans and/or fish due to the diet cutting out red meat/dairy.

Things to consider if you want to follow this diet:

  • Vitamin D supplements are recommended by the diet, as well as meditation and exercise
  • The diet recommends taking Omega 3 from flaxseed or fish oil – if you are supplementing with cod liver oil ensure that you are careful if you have a clotting disease as this has blood thinning properties
  • Due to limiting dairy you may end up deficient in calcium
  • Due to limiting meat, you may end up deficient in iron
  • Cutting down on meat and dairy may mean that you are eating too little protein (find alternative sources such as beans and lentils, fish and white meat)
  • ALWAYS ask your healthcare provider before swapping on to a new diet

Palaeolithic Diet & Wahls Protocol

The Paleo diet is very similar/part of the Wahls Protocol. 

This can also be called the Paleo Diet or the Caveman Diet. The whole idea of this is that our modern food choices are not well processed by our bodies and this diet focuses eating only what a caveman would have had access to. The paleo diet suggests that by limiting ourselves to these types of foods, our body (should in theory) be best adapted to metabolising them.

This particular diet is high in protein (yes – you are able to eat red meat, fish and nuts by the bucket) and is actually high in fats (this is contradictory of a lot of the other MS Diets). However, all processed foods, cereals, potatoes and dairy (including eggs) should be avoided.

There has been some research into the benefits of this diet for people with MS. One small study looked into the reduction of fatigue, but the study also included exercise, meditation and additional supplements. In addition to the limitation of the study size and lack of a control group, the other lifestyle factors confuse the results somewhat.  Other studies with comparison groups have looked into the use of this diet on cardiovascular health and weight loss, and this diet has been shown to be effective in promoting weight loss and cardiovascular health improvements.

Generally, this diet is not considered to be bad for you however it does have more meat in it than is recommended. It may be considered to be too restrictive, especially as whole groups of foods are cut out.

Things to consider if you want to follow this diet:

  • By eating less cereals and dairy products you could end up with a range of deficiencies such as calcium, folic acid, vitamin B6 or vitamin D
  • This diet is quite restrictive and may be difficult to follow for a prolonged period of time especially when cutting out whole food groups such as dairy, grains and pulses
  • Take care if following this diet plan to eat the recommended daily allowance of calories
  • ALWAYS speak to your doctor before you follow any new diet

Swank Diet

This is probably the best known diet for people with MS. It was named after a doctor called Roy Swank, who developed the diet in the 40s. He started treating people with MS using a low fat diet due to the possible link between high fatty diets and MS. The diet restricts the amount of fat with a limit of 15g of saturated fat and no more than 50g of saturated fat each day. It also advises reducing processed food, only eating low fat dairy and not eating any red meat (although it doesn’t limit your intake of white meat such as chicken and fish).

Lots of people have followed this diet over the years but research hasn’t proved that there are any specific benefits due to this diet alone. A number of different studies into the Swank diet have been carried out, but as with a lot of these studies, they tended to be small groups and not particularly well designed (for example no control group to compare the results with). Those who continued to maintain the diet strictly and stayed in the studies did tend to show slowed disease progression, however it is reported that there were a large number of drop outs (and it is unknown what happened to these participants), and those remaining in the study often had milder symptoms to begin with. It is really hard to draw any conclusions about this diet – but following a low fat diet with less red meat would typically be considered quite a healthy diet to follow under any circumstances.

Things to consider if you want to follow this diet:

  • Multivitamins are recommended
  • Cutting down on meat and dairy may mean that you are eating too little protein (find alternative sources such as beans and lentils, fish and white meat)
  • The diet recommends cod liver oil – this can thin your blood so be careful taking this if you have a bleeding problem or take aspirin on a regular basis
  • ALWAYS speak to your doctor before you follow any new diet

4 thoughts on “7 MS Diets – The Low Down

    1. I know right!!? That’s why I thought it was such a good idea to summarise these diets all in one place and note down all of the things to keep in mind. The best diet is a balanced diet for sure… all of the information out there tends to be contradictory and there’s no real conclusive evidence for any of these diets. The last thing you need when you’re dealing with the stress of MS is to be stressing about what you can and can’t eat too rigidly as well!

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