Have You Tried This Diet For MS?
If you have MS you have no doubt read about a Diet For MS that really works for someone else with MS and wondered if it is right for you. Anecdotal evidence is everywhere. But the fact is, there is very little science to support most of the claims you read about. Does that mean that [insert dietary regimen here] really didn’t help them (even if they feel like it did)? No, it just means that there is no evidence to suggest that what worked so well for them will also work for others, in the same way. Or vice versa.
The frenzy of nutrition advice is everywhere for folks with MS and other chronic illnesses. Have you heard of (or tried?) any of these suggestions?
- Avoid gluten!
- Avoid meat!
- Avoid grains!
- Avoid dairy!
- Don’t limit or avoid red meat. In fact, eat LOTS of red meat!
- Don’t avoid grains!
- Take these supplements! LOTS of supplements!
- And more…
Is it just me or is this advice often confusing and/or restrictive? How does the rest of the family feel about these new practices? Is it expensive? Will you be able to sustain it… forever? Will you still enjoy food? And what will these dietary changes actually result in?
Why Anecdotal Evidence Is Not The Gold Standard
It seems like every day there is another story about how one of the above listed dietary changes (or some other one) resulted in amazing improvement of someone’s MS symptoms. This is anecdotal evidence. If an intervention works for one person with MS shouldn’t it work for everyone with MS? No, not really. Simply put everybody interacts with nutrients differently. What we absorb from food and how we utilize nutrients varies from person to person and may differ for every individual throughout his or her lifespan. And these variables can change in everyone over their lifespan—you don’t absorb or utilize nutrients the same way at age 18 as you do at 40 as you do at 70. So, logically speaking, a single diet will not have the same impact on everyone who adopts it.
Take vitamin D for example. Vitamin D deficiency is common, particularly in those with MS. But because there are so many variables that impact the way we absorb it (age, amount of body fat, kidney function, skin color, exposure to sunlight, digestive disorders, lactose intolerance…) the amount of supplemental vitamin D required to correct a deficiency will be different for everyone. And because there are risks associated with taking too much vitamin D, high doses are not recommended. More is not always better. It is best to get your individualized recommendation from your doctor.
Multiple Sclerosis may be a factor impacting how your body interacts with nutrients but it is certainly not the only factor. And vitamin D is one nutrient. How many nutrients comprise our whole diet? This, in a nutshell, is why it is possible that no one diet will have the same effect in everyone. But most importantly it illustrates why anecdotal evidence is not a gold standard by which to measure the therapeutic effect of any dietary regimen.
Currently (or should I say finally!), money is being invested to help piece together a complicated puzzle: the role of nutrition in multiple sclerosis. There are several kinds of studies going on and they each have a very specific focus or outcome measure. Some studies are assessing the impact of dietary regimens on symptoms like fatigue. Other studies are evaluating the impact of specific dietary components on immune function and/or the MS disease process. It may just be that a dietary component than a regimen or pattern will be the thing that impacts everyone with all kinds of MS. Or it may be some complex combination of several factors. It may also be that an individualized approach will always be most effective. But research takes time… lots of time. And this particular puzzle has a lot of pieces. Stay tuned.
What Is The Takeaway Message About A Diet For MS?
It is that it is entirely possible that there will never be a single dietary pattern (Paleo versus Swank for just one example) that will benefit everyone living with all kinds of multiple sclerosis. There are a number of dietary and other habits known to contribute to being as healthy as possible living with or without MS. Here is a brief summary of these recommendations:
Eat a variety of nutrient dense foods including:
- Lean proteins
- Colorful vegetables and fruits
- Whole grains
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- Foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids
- Foods rich in calcium
Eat less of these foods that offer few benefits:
- Foods and beverages high in calories but low in nutrients
- Limit or avoid added sugars
- Reduce sodium intake. From the salt shaker as well as from sodium contained in refined, processed convenience foods.
- Limit the amount of saturated fat that you eat. Avoid trans fats entirely.
Don’t regularly consume more calories than you use.
- Doing so can lead to excess body fat which can increase your risk for comorbid diseases and contribute to systemic inflammation.
Be physically active.
- Regular exercise improves fatigue, outlook, bowel regularity and cognition.
Focus on what makes you healthy and feel better. If you would like some guidance on an individualized approach to nutritional health, consider working with a registered dietitian who understands Multiple Sclerosis.
One More Thing…
As I was working on this article a question started rolling around in my head… There is a vast diversity of ways that individuals experience MS, as well as the vast diversity of dietary regimens reported to manage symptoms. I also know from my conversations with you and what I read that there is enormous hope that a connection between diet and will be found.
I wonder what, specifically, we are hoping for?