MS and Diet: Should you eat low-fat to treat your MS?

Patient Expert

Bring up the topic of complementary and alternative treatments for multiple sclerosis and you just might start a controversy.   However, what's so controversial about maintaining a low-fat diet?   Sounds like a good dietary recommendation to me.

One approach to managing MS is through the use of diet, in addition to, or in place of traditional treatments.   So why aren't we all on a strict regimen and measuring our dietary intake against a widely publicized recommendation?

A simple reason may be that there is more than one "MS Diet."   Another reason may be that there is little clinical research into the the impact of diet on MS progression and symptoms.   But soon that will change.

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) are launching a first-of-its-kind research study aimed at determining whether a low fat diet is beneficial to patients with multiple sclerosis.   In addition to tracking each patient's MS symptoms and examinations by a neurologist, researchers will try to determine the physical impacts of a low fat diet on the brain through the use of MRI.

"Low fat diets are popular among MS patients who believe they are beneficial," explained Vijayshree Yadav, M.D. "However, there is little research on hand which demonstrates whether this is true and how exactly diet impacts the symptoms of MS. Through this study, we hope to quantify the impacts of diet on MS."

The research project (see the clinical trial listing) is currently recruiting 54 multiple sclerosis patients. Half of these patients will take part in a 10-day intensive dietary training program in Santa Rosa, California where they will learn about preparing low fat foods prescribed within the specialized diet. They will then follow the diet guidelines for the following 12 months as their progress is measured. The other half of the study patients will be observed as a control group and then enrolled in the same dietary training program at the conclusion of the study.

The diet being studied is called the McDougall Diet which is a whole food vegetarian diet with no added oil, eggs, or dairy products. It features starches such as potatoes, corn, rice, beans, pastas, breads, fruits and vegetables. Meat and fish are not included. Sample meals would include oatmeal and hash brown potatoes for breakfast, soups and sandwiches for lunch, and spaghetti, bean burritos, chili, or oriental rice for dinner.

In the article "Treating Multiple Sclerosis with Diet: Fact or Fraud?" Dr. McDougall concludes, "I've been very gratified by the results of this dietary treatment, not only because the progress of most of my MS patients' disease has been halted, but also because their overall health has unquestionably improved. And everyone knows that MS sufferers need every bit of help they can get."   Read more about Dr. John A. McDougall.

Previous research in the 1950's by OHSU's own Dr. Roy Swank led to the belief that low fat dieting may benefit MS patients. In fact, one of Dr. Swank's studies, a 50-year dietary study of MS patients, was recently completed. That study, which tracked a group of 144 MS patients, suggested that dieting may positively impact both the symptoms of the disease and an individual patients' survivability. However, like other studies, the results failed to determine why this appears to be the case.   Read more about the Swank Diet.

In reading further, I came across the January 2009 McDougall Newsletter which is titled "The Multiple Sclerosis and Diet Saga."   At the beginning of the newsletter, we learn that the OHSU clinical trial is sponsored by the McDougall Research and Education Foundation in the amount of $750,000.   When asked - Why spend the money to study the treatment of MS with your diet? - McDougall writes:

"For me, stopping multiple sclerosis with the cost-free, side-effect-free McDougall Diet is equivalent to throwing the biggest rock I can find at the biggest picture window in town. The shatter will be heard around the world. If diet can effectively treat a disease as mysterious and deadly as MS, then diet has to be a medical miracle and could easily be capable of bringing to an end diseases long accepted as due to diet, like type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and common cancers. A simple cure for MS would startle even the most unconscious medical doctors into awakening. Plus, I owe this study, and much more, to my mentor Roy Swank, MD for his friendship, guidance, and pioneering work."

In an exploratory study just published in Nutrition Journal, investigators studied whether variations in dietary intake were related to the severity of disease course in multiple sclerosis.   Using a food diary during 14 days, the dietary intake of 23 nutrients and vitamins was measured in patients with primary progressive (n = 21), secondary progressive (n = 32), and benign multiple sclerosis (n = 27) and compared to each other. The intake measured was also compared to the intake of the Dutch population and to the recommended daily allowance.

Compared to the other MS groups, the secondary progressive MS patients had a lower intake of magnesium, calcium and iron. The total group of MS patients had, compared to the Dutch population, a lower intake of folate, magnesium and copper and a lower energy intake. Compared to the daily recommended allowance, the MS patients had a lower than recommended intake of folic acid, magnesium, zinc and selenium.

The conclusion was that magnesium, calcium and iron intake may possibly be related to MS disease progression, and should receive further attention. An important observation because no effective neuroprotective treatment for MS patients is available.

Read more posts on MS and Diet.

Before beginning any specific diet or exercise program, please consult with your physician.