Managing Multiple Sclerosis: Why Food Matters
Talk to most multiple sclerosis (MS) experts and they’ll tell you the same thing: There’s no magic diet for MS that’s been proven to ward off symptoms or cure the disease. But that doesn’t mean your diet can’t play a role in how well you manage MS.
The foods you eat are absolutely significant, says Barry Singer, MD, a neurologist at Missouri Baptist Medical Center and the director of the MS Center for Innovations in Care in St. Louis. “Diet is extremely important to overall health and fitness,” he says — crucial when you’re managing a chronic condition. A healthy eating plan may also help you better control MS symptoms, such as fatigue, bladder problems, and bowel dysfunction. And choosing nutritious foods may help you prevent some of the most common health conditions related to MS, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
“I like to use a car analogy when explaining a healthy diet,” says Mona Bostick, RDN, CSO, LDN, a nutritionist in Greensboro, North Carolina, who herself has relapsing-remitting MS.“If you want to have a finely tuned car, put good fuel in it and practice good maintenance. Food is the fuel. Put better fuel in your tank and you’ll feel better.”
Read on to discover which foods belong in your “tank” and for tips to help get you started on a more healthful diet.
Choose Low Fat, High Fiber Foods
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) suggests that people with MS follow the same dietary guidelines recommended to the general population: Eat foods that are low in fat and high in fiber. That’s because a diet low in saturated and trans fats (or “bad” fats) and high in fiber and other nutrients is a building block in establishing overall good health.
Nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and seeds provide your body with the fuel it needs. Saturated and trans fats, on the other hand, are associated with a number of negative health effects, and the American Heart Association recommends that you limit your daily intake of these fats to less than 7 percent of your total calories.
A low-fat, high-fiber diet is also a cornerstone in maintaining a healthy weight, an important health factor for people with MS. Not only does being overweight increase your risk of other conditions, such as heart disease, but it can make some MS symptoms more difficult to manage. For instance, excess weight can contribute to fatigue and may make mobility more challenging.
But healthy eating isn’t available in one-size-fits-all plans. “Always talk to your doctor about what would be healthy for you,” Dr. Singer says. Discuss dietary changes with your doctor before you make any adjustments.
Beware of Diets That Make Big Promises
The words “cure,” “reverse,” or “beat,” for example, should be considered red flags when associated with special diets, Bostick says. “People with MS should be wary of diets that make big promises and potential false claims.”
According to the NMSS, most special diets that are touted for helping MS haven’t been thoroughly researched in controlled scientific studies. And the organization warns that some diets may even be harmful because they cut out important nutrients. “Any plan that asks you to completely eliminate certain foods from your diet, like carbohydrates — be suspicious of that,” Bostick says. The healthier approach is to gradually make changes to your overall eating habits while working with your doctor or a dietitian.